Pollution Exclusions and the Reasonable Expectations Doctrine

There is an interesting decision out of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court concerning the application of a policy endorsement and its mirror image exclusion to coverage of an oil leak from an oil delivery truck. The spill occurred while the truck was parked overnight, in between two separate days of delivering oil. The Supreme Judicial Court found that the oil leak fell within the coverage granted by the endorsement for the release of pollutants while being transported by the insured, and not within the exclusion for pollutants released while being stored. Neither the facts themselves nor the finding is particularly noteworthy, other than as a classic example of the traditional approach of Massachusetts courts to the interpretation of insurance policies. The court interpreted the plain language of the endorsement, and found that, particularly in light of the strict construction normally given to exclusionary language in the Commonwealth, the events at issue fit within the coverage grant and not within the language of the exclusion.

What was of more interest to me was the court's reliance on the reasonable expectations doctrine to buttress its reasoning and conclusion. The court stated:

This interpretation of the indorsement is consistent with what an "objectively reasonable insured, reading the relevant policy language, would expect to be covered." Hakim v. Massachusetts Insurers' Insolvency Fund, 424 Mass. 275, 283 (1997), quoting Trustees of Tufts Univ. v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 415 Mass. 844, 849 (1993). As noted above, City Fuel is in the business of delivering oil to residential customers. In purchasing an indorsement that covers the oil it delivers both while it is "[b]eing transported" and, more broadly, while it is "[o]therwise in the course of transit by" the insured, an objective purchaser in City Fuel's position would reasonably believe that a release of the oil would be covered from the time the oil is loaded onto its trucks until the time it is delivered to the customer, at least in the ordinary course.

For many years, Massachusetts courts assumed the existence and application of the reasonable insured doctrine in interpreting policies. Regardless of whether and how long it has been recognized in the Commonwealth, of interest to me is the intellectual rationale for this approach to interpretation. Is it legitimate? Is it intellectually defensible?

An insurance policy is a contract, so what warrants deviating from the actual language of it, and basing an interpretation instead on the supposedly reasonable expectations of only one of the parties to the contract? A while back, at a seminar for business and particularly real estate lawyers, I responded to an inquiry from a lawyer who represents real estate developers, and who objected to the idea that the policy was a contract that should be applied as written; his objection was premised on the assertion that what was written in the policy was not always consistent with the insured's purposes in acquiring the insurance. Now there are many ways to respond to such an argument, not the least of which is that, like any contract, it is the contracting party's responsibility to insure, pun intended, that the terms as reduced to writing are consistent with the actual agreement reached by the parties.

But the inquiry got me thinking about a more fundamental question. When I was in law school, more years ago than I care to admit to, Ronald Dworkin's writings on judicial reasoning and interpretation (generally of statutes) were a terrific starting point for much thought and consternation. His key point in one of his books, which one escapes me now, was the idea of the judge as just the next person in the course of reading and understanding the particular statute, or in this case contract, at issue. As extended to a contract, the idea was that the original contracting parties were the initial authors of the contract, but the words themselves in the agreement could not possibly encompass every possible scenario to which they might apply or account for every factual variable. As a result, strict constructionism, so to speak, of the contract is impossible; there is no original intent to the document that will cover all situations. The judge, however, becomes the next author, responsible for making a principled decision as to how to expand the understanding of the contract to make it properly fit the newest events to which the contract is being applied.

At the end of the day, isn't this how we should understand the reasonable expectations doctrine, as the court inserting itself into the role of being the latest author of the policy - rather than the policy and its meaning having been fixed in stone when the contracting parties entered into it? I am not convinced this is necessarily the right way to interpret policies, and I have some truck with the reasonable expectations doctrine itself (more on that some other time), but isn't that exactly what the Supreme Judicial Court was doing in this case, and isn't that exactly what courts are doing when they declare that the reasonable expectations of one party or another dictate that the policy be interpreted today in a particular manner?

The case, incidentally, is City Fuel Corp. Vs. National Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, SJC-09623 (May 10, 2006), available here, http://www.masslawyersweekly.com/signup/opinion.cfm?page=ma/opin/sup/1007806.htm

Post A Comment / Question






Remember personal info?