Insurance Coverage Litigation and the Elastic Concept of Ambiguity

When I was taking constitutional law in law school, I had a professor who liked to say that what standard of review the Supreme Court applied to certain types of issues depended on whether or not the justices wanted to uphold or instead overturn the statute before them; a more cursory level of review guaranteed that it would be upheld, and a more searching standard of review would inevitably lead to the statute being struck down. Readers of this blog who are lawyers probably had constitutional law professors who said much the same thing (even then, it didn’t sound particularly original to me).

The concept of ambiguity can sometimes play much the same role in insurance coverage disputes. Courts sometimes invoke it as a handy, out of the blue lightning bolt to tilt the case in favor of the insured, often, frankly, without providing much intellectual support for concluding that the particular insurance policy term involved is in fact ambiguous. Better courts and judges don’t do this, but it happens enough to be a given risk that must be accounted for by any insurance company involved in insurance coverage litigation. Most jurisdictions have a variety of legal rules that buttress the ambiguity question, which in theory should make the interpretation of debated policy terms more complicated than the simple syllogism of ambiguity equals coverage.

What brings these thoughts to mind is that David Rossmiller has a nice post today on the ambiguity of the manner in which courts find ambiguity in insurance policies. Better still, David provides a link to an excellent article on the subject that presents a perfect example of a court subtly handling the ambiguity question in a manner that should be the norm, and never the exception. If you want to know more on the elastic concept of ambiguity and its role in insurance coverage litigation, his post and the article he links to are a fine place to start.