Dial back that hyperbole, or it could really hurt you


One of the first tactical lessons most litigators learn is not to overstate your position. Another lesson is to always remain civil, even in the face of an un-civil opponent. These lessons are sometimes difficult for young lawyers, brimming with aggression, to digest. Most of the time when one of those lawyers inserts unfortunate language in a brief–say, openly mocking the opponent’s argument–cooler heads prevail and a sage senior lawyer excises the offending language.

Most of the time. But not all of the time. This short Sixth Circuit opinion, Bennett v. State Farm Mutual Insurance is a good lesson to young lawyers. I can’t deliver a judicial bench slap any better than the court, so let me just quote Judge Kethledge:

“There are good reasons not to call an opponent’s argument “ridiculous,” which is what State Farm calls Barbara Bennett’s principal argument here. The reasons include civility; the near-certainty that overstatement will only push the reader away (especially when, as here, the hyperbole begins on page one of the brief); and that, even where the record supports an extreme modifier, “the better practice is usually to lay out the facts and let the court reach its own conclusions.” Big Dipper Entm’t, L.L.C. v. City of Warren, 641 F.3d 715, 719 (6th Cir.2011). But here the biggest reason is more simple: the argument that State Farm derides as ridiculous is instead correct.”

Ouch. Whatever feeling of satisfaction that lawyer had when he wrote “ridiculous” in his brief must have felt worlds away when he read that opinion.

There’s another lesson here: Always carefully review defined terms in your insurance policy. In Bennett, “The question presented is whether Bennett was an “occupant” of the Fusion–as that term is defined by State Farm’s policy–at the time she was on the vehicle’s hood. If she was, then she is entitled to coverage for the injuries she sustained there; if not, then not.” The policy defined “occupying” as “in, on, entering or alighting from.” Since Mrs. Bennett was “on” the car, she was “occupying” it as defined by the policy.

One last lesson for insureds: Don’t give up too easily. It would have been very easy for Mrs. Bennett to hang her head when State Farm denied her claim because she was on the hood, and wasn’t an “occupant” of the car. But she stuck with it and pressed her case. Good for her.