When a “Ridiculous” Argument Is Correct

This morning’s lesson comes from Judge Kethledge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Bennett v. State Farm Mutual Insurance Co.  Judge Kethledge’s opinion for the court begins:

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.” Big Dipper Entm’t, L.L.C. v. City of Warren, 641 F.3d 715, 719 (6th Cir. 2011). But here the biggest reason is more simple: the argument that State Farm derides as ridiculous is instead correct.

FWIW, the entire opinion is only three-pages.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth quoting the key portion of the opinion:

The question presented is whether Bennett was an “occupant” of the Fusion—as that term is defined by State Farm’s policy—at the time she was on the vehicle’s hood. If she was, then she is entitled to coverage for the injuries she sustained there; if not, then not. . . .

The argument that State Farm calls “ridiculous,” State Farm Br. at 4, is that Bennett was an occupant of the Fusion per the policy’s terms. Under Ohio law, courts construe insurance agreements “in accordance with the same rules as other written contracts.” Hybud Equip. Corp. v. Sphere Drake Ins. Co., 597 N.E.2d 1096, 1102 (Ohio 1992). 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. Per the policy’s terms, therefore, Bennett was an “occupant” of the vehicle and thus entitled to coverage for those additional injuries.

It would be fair to characterize the plaintiff’s argument that, after being struck by the vehicle and landing on the hood, she was an “occupant” of the vehicle as “ridiculous” were it not for the express terms of the insurance policy at issue — a policy drafted by the defendant, State Farm.  However “ridiculous” plaintiff’s argument may seem as a matter of “ordinary English usage,” it is correct in this case, nonetheless.

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