Sometimes in law, the facts of a case may threaten to eclipse the legal issue. However, Louisiana law instructs the fact finder to see through the facts, and their sometimes tragic nature, and apply the law as written. As Aristotle once wisely said, “The Law is reason free from passion.”
In Kazan, et. al. v. Red Lion Hotels Corporation, et. al., 2021-CC-01820 (La. 6/29/22), the Louisiana Supreme Court recently ruled on a case with tragic facts, and its ruling provides an example of Aristotle’s description of law in action. In Kazan, a female patron was in the parking lot of a motel when a male patron approached her and used Kazan’s vehicle to abduct her from the premises. The car was later found submerged in a lake, and Kazan’s body was recovered from the water. The family filed a tort suit against several parties, including the motel’s owner and its insurer, the Great Lakes Insurance Company SE.
Great Lakes filed a motion for summary judgment and asked to be dismissed on grounds that coverage for the event was excluded from its policy. Specifically, the insurer argued that bodily injury caused by an “assault,” “battery,” or “physical altercation” was excluded under the policy’s terms. Great Lakes further argued that the kidnapping and ultimate death of the patron was excluded under the policy as bodily injury caused by an assault, battery, or physical altercation. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed and reversed the decision of the trial and appellate courts.
Under Louisiana law, “[a]n insurance policy is a contract between the parties and should be construed using the general rules for the interpretation of contracts.” Id. at p. 3. “When the words of an insurance policy are clear and explicit and do not lead to absurd consequences, courts must enforce the language as written.” Id. at p. 3. “Courts lack authority to alter the terms of an insurance policy under the guise of interpretation and should not create an ambiguity where none exists.” Id. at p. 3.
With these basic rules in mind, the Court carefully reviewed the wording of the exclusion in the Great Lakes policy which stated as follows: “This insurance does not apply to ‘bodily injury,’ ‘property damage,’ or ‘personal advertising injury’ arising out of an ‘assault,’ ‘battery,’ or ‘physical altercation.’” “Physical altercation” was defined in the policy as “a dispute between individual [sic] in which one or more persons sustain bodily injury arising out of the dispute.” Citing Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the Court defined the term “dispute” as “verbal controversy” or “quarrel.”
Based upon the evidence in the case, the Court found the female patron was involved in a “dispute” with her male attacker, and ultimately sustained bodily injury as a result of the dispute. Therefore, the patron was injured in a physical altercation, as defined under the specific terms of the Policy, and coverage for the event was excluded under the policy’s terms.
The Court noted as follows: “The facts of this case are undoubtedly tragic. Nonetheless, absent a conflict with statutory provisions or public policy, insurers are entitled to limit their liability by imposing reasonable conditions upon the policy obligations they contractually assume. That is what Great Lakes did in the insurance policy at issue here.” Despite the tragic facts presented in the case, in so holding, it appears the court agreed with Aristotle’s belief that the Law is Reason Free from Passion.