"This decision means that if a policyholder has a reasonable 'plain language' interpretation of a policy, that should be given weight in court," Boatright said. "Insurance companies should not be allowed to confuse consumers with legalese."
The judgment issued on Jan. 27 sent the nine-year-long insurance policy dispute between the Nassars and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company back to the trial court.
The original dispute centered on whether a fence should be considered a "structure attached to the dwelling" -- a distinction that made a significant difference on the payout. The Nassars argued that the "plain language" of the insurance policy could reasonably be interpreted to include the fence because it was attached to the house at four separate points. Liberty Mutual argued that other provisions of the policy defined fences in a different way.
The trial court sided with Liberty Mutual and granted summary judgment, deciding the case before it went before a jury. The Court of Appeals for the Fourteenth District upheld the trial judge's decision, and the homeowners appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case.
Boatright argued that weight should be given to the policy's plain reading by ordinary people.
"Most people don't hire a lawyer to review every insurance policy they buy," Boatright said.
In the opinion, the Supreme Court states, "Our task…is not to find new meaning in relatively common words or to make difficult what is actually simple." The Black's Law Dictionary definition of "structure" ultimately won out over the insurance company's explanation.
The Supreme Court's decision may have the effect of discouraging trial court judges from making adverse summary judgment rulings against policyholders in common disputes, resulting in more cases like the Nassars' reaching quicker settlements or going to trial, Boatright said.
"Who else is better suited to interpret the 'plain language' of an insurance policy," asks Boatright, "than a jury of your peers."
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SOURCE Arnold & Itkin LLP