In the litigation business, us lawyers should avoid hyperbole. Unlike the lawyers on television, exagerration is often counter-productive in a real court. Avoiding hyperbole is even more important when prosecuting an appeal. The lawyers for State Farm in Bennett v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co., No. 13-3047 (6th Cir. 9/24/13) overlooked that basic law school lesson.
The lawsuit began when Barbara Bennett was walking her dog along a road in Ohio. She was hit by a car driven by Robert Pastel. The impact threw her on the hood of the vehicle where she sustained further injuries. The plaintiff made an argument which the insurance company described as "ridiculous." Ridiculous or not, the insurance company should have kept its thoughts to itself. Or better yet, the defendant should have presented its facts and allow the court to draw its own conclusions about the strength of the plaintiff’s arguments.
Was Ms. Bennett an "occupant" of the vehicle when she sustained the further injuries? if so, then she would be entitled to coverage for those additional injuries. If not an occupant, then she would not receive coverage for those further injuries. State Farm branded the argument that she was an occupant of the vehicle as "ridiculous." Well, as the court noted, there are several reasons not to use that term, ranging from civility to not turning off the reader of the brief. But, said the court, the best reason is that the "ridiculous" argument is actually the correct argument.
An insurance policy is interpreted according to its terms. The policy in this case defines "occupying" as "in, on, or entering or alighting from" the vehicle. The parties stipulated that Ms. Bennett was "on" the hood of the vehicle when she sustained her further injuries. So, according to the policy, Ms. Bennett was an "occupant" of the vehicle when she sustained her additional injuries. See the court’s opinion here. The lower court had granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm on this issue. So, the Sixth Circuit reversed that decision.
Apart from the technical interpretation of the insurance policy, it is apparent to me that the Sixth Circuit was offended by the use of the term "ridiculous." As I explain to my clients from time to time, the words we use may provide temporary satisfaction, but they may well lead to long-term pain. I am sure some State Farm executive enjoyed seeing that phrase in the brief. But, now the insurance company must feel some pain which will not go away. I do not know what Ms. Bennett’s additional injuries included, but they must have been extensive to justify all this litigation. State Farm will likely be paying out some money for their over-zealousness.