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Judge Kethledge Defies Physics, Counsels State Farm on Decorum

By William Peacock, Esq. on September 25, 2013 3:56 PM

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.

A woman walks down the street. She is hit by a car, and flung onto the car's hood, where she sustains additional injuries. The car was insured by State Farm.

The details of the policy aren't really provided by the case, but the most relevant point is this: if she "occupied" the car, she's covered. Otherwise, not so much.

Common sense would say, "Uh, duh. She was hit by the car. She couldn't have been occupying it at the time of the crash." State Farm thought so too, and maintained that the argument of the injured plaintiff, Barbara Bennett, was "ridiculous."

Per common sense, it would be. But friends, this isn't common sense, it is law. "... 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." (Italics added.)

Yep. It's that old adage: ambiguities in a contract will be construed against the drafter, especially when the drafting party is a multi-billion dollar insurance company. Then again, this isn't exactly ambiguous ... it's just sloppily drafted.

State Farm cites a few cases where pedestrians were held to not be "occupants" of the vehicles who struck them, but in one case, there was no definition of "occupant" in the policy, and in the others, the injured party was underneath or adjacent to (changing a tire) the vehicle. Those cases, per the court, are factually distinguishable, while in this case, occupant is defined in "primary colors."

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