Insurance Policy Interpretation: Navigating Plain Meaning, Ambiguity, Special Rules Applicable to Exclusions, Extrinsic Evidence and Burden of Proof

Advocating Coverage From Policyholder and Insurer Perspectives

Recording of a 90-minute CLE webinar with Q&A

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Conducted on Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Recorded event now available

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Course Materials

This CLE program will discuss these and other general rules for interpreting insurance policies, with particular focus on recent cases that illustrate the differing approaches courts have taken to applying them. The program will look at the issues from both sides—policyholder and insurer.


Insurance policies usually are drafted by insurers using standard form language, much of which has been interpreted by courts over many years. But it is a mistake to assume that seemingly minor differences in language do not change the meaning of otherwise similar provisions that have been interpreted before. To the contrary, insurance policies are contracts, and it is the language of the particular contract – construed under principles of contract interpretation – that controls. As numerous recent cases illustrate, coverage often turns on the meaning of a particular word or phrase.

Moreover, insurance policies are a unique breed of contracts, subject to special rules of construction. Applying these rules can be complex. For example, among the general rules of insurance policy interpretation is that the court should apply a policy provision’s plain and ordinary meaning. However, courts must give effect to all the words in a policy and cannot interpret it in a way that renders a word or provision “mere surplusage.” So what should a court do when one clear provision conflicts with another equally clear provision? To resolve such a conflict, courts employ special rules regarding ambiguity, interpretation of exclusions, and burden of proof as “tie breakers.”

Listen as our authoritative panel of insurance practitioners reviews rules for interpreting insurance policy exclusions, how courts look at deciding plain meaning of policy language, what constitutes ambiguity and other factors in interpreting the scope of policy exclusions. The panel will present the coverage arguments from the perspectives of both the policyholder and the insurer.



  1. Overview of general rules of policy interpretation
  2. Why should special rules apply to insurance policies?
  3. What constitutes ambiguity?
    1. Language susceptible to two or more reasonable interpretations
    2. Clear policy provisions conflict
  4. Use of extrinsic evidence or “contextual cues”
  5. Special rules applicable to interpretation of policy exclusions
  6. Burden of proof
  7. Recent case law


The panel will review these and other key issues:

  • General rules applicable to the interpretation of insurance policies
  • Determining whether policy language is ambiguous
  • Special rules applied to interpreting exclusions and resolving ambiguities
  • Circumstances in which extrinsic evidence or contextual clues may be used by courts to aid in interpretation


Frank J. DeAngelis
Frank J. DeAngelis

Mound Cotton Wollan & Greengrass

Mr. DeAngelis has close to 20 years of experience in domestic and international litigation. His experience includes...  |  Read More

Alex J. Lathrop
Alex J. Lathrop

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman

Mr. Lathrop focuses his practice on assisting corporate policyholders recover from their insurers. He has assisted...  |  Read More

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