Home Page The Publication The Editor Contact Information Insurance Key issues Book Subscribe


Vol. 9 - Issue 4
May 31, 2020


Appeals Court Uses Its Spidey-Sense To Figure Out Coverage  


I love this case.  I loved it last year when the trial court decision was handed down and I love it even more now that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has weighed in.

At issue in Robinson v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., No. 19-10940 (11th Cir. May 11, 2020) was the availability of coverage, under a homeowner’s policy, for the infestation of a home by the highly venomous brown recluse spider.  The homeowners, the Robinsons, alleged that the spiders “infested every facet of their home, could not be eradicated, posed a deadly risk, and presented ‘a dangerous and irreparable condition’ that rendered their home ‘unsafe for occupancy.’”

Liberty Mutual denied coverage, citing an exclusion for loss “[c]aused by . . . [b]irds, vermin, rodents, or insects.”  Coverage litigation ensued.

Of course spiders are insects.  Everyone knows that.  But the Robinsons said no, claiming that, scientifically speaking, spiders are not insects, but arachnids.

The Eleventh Circuit undertook a science lesson to reach its decision, noting that “[f]ew zoological terms have been more loosely used both by scientific and popular writers than the term ‘insect.’” 

What makes the decision so interesting is that the court agreed with the Robinsons that “the scientific community distinguishes between arachnids and insects.”  But the Robinsons still lost the issue, as “Alabama law cautions against using technical or scientific definitions to interpret the terms of an insurance contract.”

The court noted that “dictionary definitions of ‘insect’ establish that an ordinary person would still understand the term ‘insect’ to include spiders. That the average person has yet to adopt the scientific vernacular is not unexpected; after all, not every adult recalls the basics of their childhood science lessons as well as they should.”

In essence, the court concluded that words are defined by their common meaning, even if everyone is technically wrong in that meaning.  In support of this conclusion, the court cited to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1893 decision in Nix v. Hedden, which concluded that a tomato was a vegetable, despite its botanical classification as a fruit because it is a vegetable ‘in the common language of the people.’”

Robinson could have opened the door to some interesting arguments, about the meaning of a term, when there is a discrepancy between its technical and colloquial understandings.  Under Robinson, a court can use its spidey-sense to figure out what a term means.

[The Robinsons also did not prevail because the court conclude that spiders are vermin.]


Website by Balderrama Design Copyright Randy Maniloff All Rights Reserved