, Derry, New Hampshire


July 3, 2014

About the Law: The case of the $1 million comma

Did you struggle with grammar in school? People battle all kinds of issues in court. But an appeal over the placement of a comma provides hair-raising reading.

I could have started the column by saying “So a man goes into a bar …” But, that hardly seems right where the man was seriously injured in a bar brawl.

Injuries were so severe that the tavern’s insurance company initially offered a $1.2 million settlement. The insurer then changed its mind, claiming that the Brockton, Mass., bar’s general liability policy excluded coverage for assault and battery taking place in the bar.

Reading insurance policies is not for the timid.

This insurance policy included language which excluded coverage “arising out of an assault or battery, provoked or unprovoked, or out of any act or omission in connection with prevention or suppression of an assault or battery, committed by any insured or an employee or agent of the insured.”

The court held that the comma before the words “committed by” attached the committed by language only to the words “act or omission.” This meant that the assault or battery language stood alone. Assault and batteries are not covered.

Attorneys for the man injured disagreed. They argued that the words “committed by” applied to an assault or battery, meaning that only assaults committed by employees or agents of the tavern are excluded.

But the court said they were wrong. Not only did their reading defy common sense, but the policy language was unambiguous. This was despite the court’s own acknowledgement that other courts differ in interpretation of the same language.

Here’s the rub. A basic rule in looking at insurance policy language is that if there is more than one rational interpretation of policy language, then it is construed against the insurance company and in favor of the person or entity insured.

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