Sophistry and Insurance Policy Interpretation

Stephen A. Horvath, Esquire
March 14th, 2014
By: Stephen A. Horvath, Esquire

Sophistry is a flawed method of arguing. It is a type of argument that appears clever on its face, but it is actually flawed or dishonest. In ancient Greece, Sophists were philosophers or teachers, and early Sophists were well respected. Over time theses Sophists started to charge high fees for their teachings. Plato described Sophists as paid hunters of the young and wealthy, as athletes in a contest of words and purgers of souls. He described them as “the art of contradiction making, descended from an insincere kind of conceited mimicry,…a shadow play of words”.

Today, courts and insurance companies are confronted with arguments by modern Sophists. These legal arguments concern interpretations of policies of insurance, stretching to find an ambiguity which will be construed against the insurance company. Fortunately, the Virginia Supreme Court has rejected these arguments.

“Contracts of insurance, however, are not made by or for casuists or sophists, and the obvious meaning of their plain terms is not to be discarded for some curious, hidden sense, which nothing but the exigency of a hard case and the ingenuity of an acute mind would discover. Contracts of insurance, like other contracts, are to be construed according to the sense and meaning of the terms which the parties have used; and, if they are clear and unambiguous, their terms are to be taken in their plain, ordinary and popular sense.”  Bawden v. American Ins. Co., 153 Va.416, 426, 150 S.E. 257, 260 (1929)(quoting Delaware Ins. Co. v. Greer, 120 F. 916, 920-21 (8th [Page 165]Cir. 1903)). See Imperial Fire Ins. Co. v. Coos Co., 151 U.S. 452, 463 (1894).

The Virginia Supreme Court has admonished that an insurance policy is simply a contract, and if the type of policy does not have special statutory limitations, the parties are at liberty to make their own agreements. First American Title Insurance Co. v. Seaboard Savings and Loan, 227 Va. 379, 315 S.E.2d 842 (1984).  Neither the court nor the parties are to engage in a “strained or unjustified construction of the policy…which disregards the plain meaning and intent of the parties”. Id. Importantly, merely because another Court has given a different interpretation or different result does not create an ambiguity in Virginia. Floyd v. Northernneck Insurance Company, 245 Va. 153, 427 S.E.2d 193 (1993).

Recently I was confronted with an argument from an attorney on a policy interpretation where he told the Court “an average or ordinary attorney would stop with the analysis at this point. I, however, have done a much deeper and more detailed analysis which leads to a ruling in my client’s favor.” I responded stating that I was thankful that I was simply an ordinary or average attorney, since that is how a policy is interpreted, and that policies were not for sophists or casuists. The Court agreed, gave straight forward interpretation to the language, and ruled in favor of the insurance company.


This blog and the information provided has been prepared by Bancroft, McGavin, Horvath & Judkins, P.C. (“BMHJ”) for information purposes only and is not intended nor to be construed as legal advice. This blog may contain the opinions of the members and associates of this firm on various legal issues and is not legal advice. Read More