A recent decision of the Illinois Supreme Court reinforces the notion that in cases of ambiguous policy language, the benefit of the doubt must go to policyholders.
The plaintiff in the case, Swiderski Electronics, had been sued for a "blast fax" that was claimed to be in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Swiderski called in its insurance company to defend it, but Valley Forge Insurance Co. refused.
The case hinged on an advertising and personal injury provision in Swiderski's general liability policy--specifically, the definition of "violation of a person's right of privacy" in that provision--according to Anthony C. Valiulis, a principal with Chicago-based law firm Much Shelist, who, along with colleague Joanne Sarasin, argued the case for the plaintiff.
"The broader fight," said Valiulis, "was what it meant by violation of a person's right of privacy--whether that meant a violation of a person's right to privacy in the sense of seclusion, which was our argument."
The insurance company, Valiulis said, argued that violation of a person's right to privacy meant something along the lines of the loss of secrecy, or the loss of private data.
The broadest fight, though, was for insurance policy provision language interpretations, in any line of coverage, in favor of the policyholder, a principle that, Valiulis said, has been ignored or only "paid lip service" by past court decisions.
Valiulis read aloud the decision written by Judge Rita B. Garman: "Affording undefined policy terms their plain, ordinary and popularly understood meanings is of central importance to this approach"
This finding in Valley Forge Insurance v. Swiderski Electronics, he said, could help policyholders in Illinois, and perhaps elsewhere, with policy-wording interpretations. He also said he hopes it spurs insurance companies to "change the language of their policies so that they are more easily understood."
March 1, 2007
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