ORDINARY USE OF TERM IN INSURANCE POLICY PREVAILED

There are cases where you feel for the plaintiff, but understand why they did not prevail, despite the creative efforts of their counsel.  The case of Robinson v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 958 F.3d 1137 (11th Cir. 2020) is one of these cases.

In Robinson, the plaintiff moved into a home that turned out to be infested with a highly venomous spider.  Efforts to eradicate the spider proved unsuccessful and the spider apparently infested the entire home.  The plaintiff made a claim under their homeowner’s property insurance policy arguing that their home suffered a physical loss caused by the spider infestation as the spider presented an irreparable condition that rendered the home unsafe for occupancy.  (It probably did!). The property insurer denied coverage because the policy had an insurance exclusion for loss caused by birds, vermin, rodents, or insects.

The insurer claimed the spider is an insect or vermin and, therefore, there is no coverage based on the exclusion.  The insured creatively argued that “scientifically speaking” a spider is an arachnid and not an insect.  Neither the trial court nor the Eleventh Circuit found this argument persuasive.

Under the ordinary dictionary meaning of the term “insect,” a spider fits into this meaning any many dictionaries even list a spider as an example of an insect.  Moreover, vermin include “small common harmful or objectionable animals (as lice or fleas) that are difficult to control.”  A highly venomous spider that cannot be eradicated fits within this meaning based on the allegations of the plaintiff’s claims.

Sure, you feel for the homeowner that moved into a home that cannot be occupied based on the infestation of a highly venomous spider.  And the homeowner’s lawyers made a creative argument by stepping away from ordinary uses of terms by focusing on the technical scientific definition of a spider.  But, the ordinary meanings and uses of terms in an insurance policy prevailed. And, they probably should prevail.   This does not mean the creative arguments should not have been pursued.  They probably should have in this scenario where efforts to eradicate the spider were not successful and the home could not be occupied.  However, ordinary dictionary meanings and uses should not be ignored when interpreting a contract, which is what an insurance policy is.

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

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