Insurance case law is the body of court opinions from a common law jurisdiction that apply and interpret insurance laws. The common law system, which is basis for the legal structure of the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and Australia, among others, centers on the convergence of two kinds of law. Statutory law, or “black letter” law, is the law as mandated by the legislature or parliament. Case law is the always-changing body of court opinions that apply the governing statutes to certain fact scenarios, and provide guidance with respect to how the statutes should be understood. In the broadest sense, the phrase “insurance case law” refers to the ultimate decision of any court hearing an insurance dispute. Most of the time, insurance case law is broken down by jurisdiction, as well as by primary subject area.
Insurance case law research is an important part of any insurance attorney’s job. Where litigation is concerned, statutory law usually provides the map, but it is case law that provides point-by-point directions. Case law is built upon years of judicial expertise and experience, and together forms the generally authoritative view of how the written laws should be applied to certain fact scenarios, and what those laws mean to everyday life.
Most case law is built around a system of precedents. If a court makes a decision about how a certain element of statutory law should apply to a specific set of facts, lower courts are usually bound to follow that direction. Courts at the same level are usually required to consider the interpretation as influential. Insurance precedent is no different.
Of course, it is rare for two cases to contain identical fact patterns. Attorneys representing parties in litigation disputes will often look for case law concerning similar facts or circumstances, and will argue that the reasoning is parallel enough to be persuasive. In insurance lawsuits, this usually means looking for cases that involved the same sorts of insurance policies, applied the same local rules, or concerned parties who made similar types of insurance claims.
Most of the time, insurance practitioners and attorneys focus their study on a narrow sector of the reigning insurance case law. Lawyers who tailor their practices to automobile insurance cases will normally not be interested in researching homeowner’s insurance law, for instance. Attorneys representing indemnity companies may similarly look past medical insurance bad faith case law. Differences do not necessarily mean that a piece of case law has no value, however.
Most lawyers and legal researchers conduct case law research using keywords and search terms, whether online or in bound collections of court opinions. Many case law research tools, particularly those online, will allow lawyers to create search algorithms to find case law from a variety of sectors that concern certain specific details. In insurance case law, this can be as simple as the type of claim and relevant jurisdiction, or as broad as the age of the claimant, the amount in controversy, and even the brand of insurance at issue. Even if different insurance cases seem at first glance unrelated, lawyers may be able to weave fact similarities into a convincing argument. This sort of interrelationship and the resulting possibilities for inference are hallmarks of case law in all disciplines.