Reviewing philosopher Mark Rowlands’ 2012 work Can Animals Be Moral?, Jessica Pierce wrote in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, “The question, ‘Can animals be moral?’ has suffered the worst kind of philosophical denial: an almost complete lack of interest by ‘serious’ philosophers.”
No longer. In an effort to apply “general canon[s] of contract interpretation,” the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania – in a recent insurance-coverage opinion of all places – implicitly (if not explicitly) considered this timeless, vexing question and concluded that “[a]nimals do not have conscious agency and are not subject to human law.”
In the honorable pursuit of robust coverage law – really, is there a more noble pursuit? – the court rendered raccoons and their woodland “companions” as nothing more than legal roadkill. Their demise, however, was not in vain. The court’s decision serves as a good reminder to all that just because a term used in an insurance policy is not defined does not mean that it is ambiguous.
In Capital Flip, LLC v. American Modern Select Insurance Company, No. 2:19-cv-180, 2019 WL 4536164 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 19, 2019), the policyholder, whose property had been damaged by the masked bandits, creatively “argue[d] that the raccoons engaged in ‘vandalism and malicious mischief,’ which is unquestionably covered by the insurance policy. [The insurer] counter[ed] that the raccoons cannot, as a matter of law, engage in vandalism or perpetrate mischief – much less with malice.”
The insurance policy at issue “clearly and unequivocally states that it covers direct physical loss to property caused by ‘vandalism or malicious mischief’.” The policy, however, defines neither “vandalism” nor “malicious mischief.”
The intrepid policyholder argued therefore that the policy was ambiguous. “It contends that, because those terms are undefined, they may include damage caused by raccoons and/or other animals” (emphasis in the original).
The federal district court rabidly disagreed. “It is well-established that a term is not ambiguous merely because an insurance policy does not provide a specific definition,” it stated. The court continued:
Rather, where a term is not specifically defined, courts apply the
“common law definition historically used by the courts of this
Commonwealth and apply it to the facts of the case.” This is consistent
with the general canon of contract interpretation that “words of
‘common usage’ in an insurance policy are to be construed in their
natural, plain and ordinary sense, and a court may inform its understanding
of these terms by considering their dictionary definition” (internal citations omitted).
The court thus looked to the Oxford Dictionary’s and Black’s Law Dictionary’s definitions of “vandal,” “malicious,” and “mischief.” It also observed that “[t]he legal usage of those terms confirms, and amplifies, their common usage.” It then threw the poor raccoons and Pennsylvania’s woodland creatures under the proverbial bus, concluding that “[t]hese definitions apply to deliberate acts by a person which are intended to do harm. The common usage of the terms ‘vandalism’ and ‘malicious mischief’ preclude their application to the actions of animals” (emphasis in the original).
Not satisfied, the Court backed over the raccoons and their furry friends: “Raccoons and their companions in the animal kingdom cannot formulate the intent needed to engage in ‘vandalism,’ ‘malicious’ or any other criminal or actionable conduct.” Seemingly addressing the titular question of Rowlands’ 2012 work, the court dealt a mortal blow to the collective psyche of Winnie the Pooh, Smokey Bear, Gus the Groundhog, and woodland creatures all across Pennsylvania. At the same time, it delivered a knockout punch to the policyholder’s claims. Even though the terms “vandalism” and “malice” were not defined in the policy, they were not ambiguous. Accordingly, the district court granted the insurer’s motion to dismiss.
While a total defeat for the policyholder, the decision was not a complete loss for the animal kingdom. The Western District of Pennsylvania appears to have offered the Commonwealth’s furry friends a get-out-of-jail-free card, adding: “By its very language criminal mischief, like all crimes, requires a human actor. Animals are subject only to the laws of nature, not the Pennsylvania Crimes Codes or law governing human conduct.”