Generally in insurance analysis when I see a court resort to a dictionary definition to interpret a word or phrase in a policy I figure what’s going to follow will be a fairly facile, superficial explanation. Usually that’s the way it works out.
The New York Times explores what it says is an increasing reliance on dictionary definitions in U.S. Supreme Court opinions. In May alone, justices cited dictionary definitions eight times, and not always for big words.
All of this is, lexicographers say, sort of strange.
“I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom,” said Jesse Sheidlower, the editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind, but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings and connotations of terms is not usually one of them.”
I can’t speak much to opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, because I seldom read them, but I read a lot of insurance coverage cases from state appellate courts, federal district courts and federal appeals courts, and I agree with the gist of the Times story.
One issue with using a dictionary definition is which dictionary do you use? There are scores and scores of dictionaries, and the variance among them is sufficient to allow a judge to cherry pick a definition that proves a pre-conceived point.
In addition, the use of dictionaries tends to support an extra-textual method of analysis that renders a much more limited and less insightful analysis. I’m not saying this is done out of bad motives. I’m simply saying it’s non-textual and not the best method of analysis.
Words and phrases in a policy should not be viewed in isolation, outside the context of surrounding terms of the policy, and of the policy as a whole. I strongly advocate analyzing policy language by analyzing the entire context of the policy and attempting to discern what underwriting concern or principle of insurance is being addressed. Also, analyzing sentence structure, punctuation and syntax is much more helpful at discerning meaning, or finding ambiguity, than turning to a dictionary. In reality, although some courts purport to cling to notions that insurance terms are supposed to be understood in the common, everyday usage of the word in the absence of a specific definition within the policy, I think this is unrealistic. Most of the time, words, phrases and clauses in insurance policies have at least some degree of specialized meaning, because the concepts they deal with are specialized, and because the words are usually selected in response to previous judicial opinions.
I would make one final point: extra-textualism, or non-textualism as it also could be called, is heavily reliant on the deductive method of reasoning, which is inferior to the inductive method in insurance coverage analysis. Deductive logic is prone to misuse because it relies on an initial set of premises that are subject to the bias of the person who creates the premises, and is therefore rigid, and you are less likely to catch your own mistakes or recognize your own folly.
UPDATE: Forgot the link to the NYT, fixed it.