Unambiguous Policy Defeats Last-Antecedent Grammar Rule

May 22, 2019 / Writing and Speaking

By Don R. Sampen, published, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin May 20, 2019

The 2nd District Appellate Court recently rejected application of the last-antecedent rule of grammatical construction in finding an umbrella liability policy unambiguous.

The insurer in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Murphy, 2019 IL App (2d) 180154 (March 29, 2019), was represented by SmithAmundsen LLC. Much Shelist P.C. represented the parties seeking coverage under the State Farm policy.

James Hollander, deceased, was driving an automobile owned by Sandra Wendland in 2015 when a collision occurred in Kendall County. Wendland herself and others were passengers in the car at the time of the collision. As a result, Hollander died. Wendland and others brought suit against his estate claiming he was negligent.

State Farm provided primary coverage to Wendland, and it agreed to defend Hollander’s estate as a permissive user of her automobile. It nonetheless brought this declaratory action claiming that it had no duty to defend or indemnify the estate under a State Farm $1 million umbrella policy issued to Wendland.

The umbrella policy provided that State Farm would indemnify “insureds” under the policy. “Insureds” were defined as including (a) the named insured (Wendland) and relatives residing in her household, (b) other primary residents of her household, and (c) other persons “to the extent they are liable for the use of an automobile, recreational motor vehicle or watercraft by a person” included in (a) or (b).

State Farm moved for summary judgment, arguing that neither Hollander or his estate qualified as an insured under the umbrella party. After initially denying the motion, the trial court, upon reconsideration, granted the motion and entered summary judgment in State Farm’s favor. The other defendants filed timely appeals.

Analysis

In an opinion by Justice Robert D. McLaren, the 2nd District affirmed. He initially addressed the defendants’ argument that, under provision (c) above, Wendland was “using” the vehicle because she was a passenger in the car. McLaren pointed out that no one was claiming that Wendland was negligent in any manner and her use of the vehicle, without more, was insufficient for coverage.

Rather, for Hollander to be an insured under provision (c) for use of the vehicle “by” Wendland, McLaren said the underlying complaints must allege that he is liable for Wendland’s use. And if Wendland is not alleged to have been negligent, then Hollander cannot be liable for her use.

The defendants’ other argument was that, under the last-antecedent rule, the “by a person” language in provision (c) applies only to watercraft and does not apply to automobiles.

The last-antecedent rule, according to McLaren, is a grammatical canon that says qualifying words or phrases are applied to the words or phrases immediately preceding them and are not construed as extending to or including other words or phrases.

Thus, if the canon were to apply, persons “using” the automobile would automatically be insureds — regardless of their connection to the named insured or the insured vehicle. McLaren found, however, that no need existed to resort to canons of construction, like the last-antecedent rule, so long as the terms of the umbrella policy were clear and unambiguous.

Here, McLaren said, those terms were clear in that Hollander was not an insured.

McLaren thus rejected what he characterized as the “strained, forced, unnatural and unreasonable” interpretation proposed by the defendants.

The 2nd District, therefore, affirmed the judgment of the trial court in favor of State Farm.

Key point

The last-antecedent rule, like other rules of construction applicable to insurance policies, does not apply in the absence of an ambiguity in the policy.

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