6th Circuit, Benchslaps, Insurance, Screw-Ups

Don’t Mock A Legal Argument If You’re Completely Wrong

There’s no better way to introduce this story than by reprinting the opening paragraph of the Sixth Circuit opinion by Judge Raymond Kethledge (citation omitted):

There are good reasons not to call an opponent’s argument “ridiculous,” which is what State Farm calls Barbara Bennett’s principal argument here. The reasons include civility; the near-certainty that overstatement will only push the reader away (especially when, as here, the hyperbole begins on page one of the brief); and that, even where the record supports an extreme modifier, “the better practice is usually to lay out the facts and let the court reach its own conclusions.” But here the biggest reason is more simple: the argument that State Farm derides as ridiculous is instead correct.

Trolls. So. Hard.

Want to know the argument that set off the panel? “Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is there… with a detailed explanation!

Nobody likes insurance companies. I’ve heard tell of one particular, prominent federal judge who tells clerks behind closed doors, “Whatever happens, the insurance company loses.”

Given the prevailing mood of the country, you’d think carriers would rein in the douchebaggery in their briefing. Instead, State Farm called out their opponent’s argument as “ridiculous” — and the Sixth Circuit treated the insurance giant to a segment of “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.

Barbara Bennett was out walking her dog when she got hit by a car. A car insured by State Farm. Since the driver of the car was at fault, Bennett went to collect from State Farm. But State Farm’s policy only covered occupants of the car. Bennett argued that, to the extent the accident threw her onto the hood of the car like she was in a Whitesnake video, she was an occupant of the vehicle. That does sound a little ridiculous.

But the problem for State Farm is that the Sixth Circuit read the definitions in the policy.

Here, as a matter of ordinary English usage, one might be skeptical that Bennett was an “occupant” of the Fusion during the time she was on its hood. Occupants are normally inside vehicles, not on them. But the parties to a contract can define its terms as they wish; and State Farm has done so here. Its policy for the Fusion defines “occupying” as “in, on, entering or alighting from.” And the parties have stipulated that Bennett was on the Fusion—specifically, on its hood—and that she “suffered further bodily injuries” while she was there.

Bennett was almost certainly “on” the vehicle, as well as alighting from it at high speed when the driver slammed on the brakes. This is the problem with complex contracts: creating definitions that deviate from common meaning will almost always come back to haunt the drafter. Actually, State Farm knows a thing or two about how shoddy definitions can screw someone over. Check out the French model at the end of this video.

The lawyers getting the thorough lesson in civility are Richard Garner and Gregory Collins of Davis & Young. Cheer up, guys. I’m sure State Farm will cover the damages of the Sixth Circuit running you over.

The full opinion on the next page….

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