A Duty to Defend: Interpreting ambiguous insurance policies

Case: Tien Lung Taekwon-Do Club v Lloyd’s Underwriters, 2015 ABCA 46

If the language of an insurance policy is ambiguous, and general rules of contract construction do not aid in its interpretation, the Court must interpret the policy against the insurer.

In the above case, the respondents owned a taekwon-do club. While participating in a match, an individual was injured and filed a statement of claim against the club, alleging it should be held vicariously liable.

The insurer refused to defend the claim on the basis of an exclusion clause. The clause read that the policy does not apply to: Any Bodily Injury caused or contributed by any Insured to any participant and/or any Bodily Injury caused or contributed by any participant in a match or practice in regards to Category 4 Sports unless specified in the Declarations.

The chambers judge ruled that the clause did not apply as the declarations page overrode the exclusions, and reasonably contemplated that matches and practices were to be covered under the policy. The insurer was obliged to defend the action.

The issue on appeal was whether the language of the exclusion clause vitiated the insurer’s duty to defend.

The standard of review to interpret a contract is reasonableness. The Court of Appeal reviewed the exclusion clause and found that it did not appear to be standard form language. Interpretation of the clause required deference per Sattva Capital Corp., however the Court found that the chambers judge had correctly stated and applied the relevant legal principles and correctly interpreted the policy.

The Court stated that if language of the policy is ambiguous, it must be interpreted according to general rules of contract construction (reasonable expectation of parties, avoiding unrealistic results, ensuring similar policies are construed consistently). Failing that, the policy must be interpreted according to the longstanding doctrine of contra proferentem – meaning, against the insurer as the stronger bargaining party and author of the policy in issue.

In the result, the respondents were only required to show that there was an alternative reasonable interpretation of the policy, supported by the text and the parties’ reasonable expectations. The Court upheld the chambers judge’s ruling and affirmed that the insurer was obliged to defend.