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Florida Fifth DCA rules in favor of defendant life insurance company in coverage dispute involving interpretation of policy provisions

On December 31, 2020, in Principal Life Insurance Company v. Halstead, et al., No. 5D18-3342, the Florida Fifth DCA reversed a trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff in a first-party life insurance breach of contract action with the defendant insurer.  The plaintiff, the surviving spouse of the insured, alleged that a downward adjustment of policy coverage from $1.5 million to $500,000 which the insured had applied for prior to his death was inapplicable because of a passage in the policy indicating that the effective date of the adjustment was the “Adjustment Date” on the new data pages for the policy, provided that the insured “sign the Part D of the Adjustment Application and any amendment form, if applicable, and return such forms to  Company within 30 days of the adjustment delivery date.” Because the insured never signed and returned Part D, his surviving spouse alleged that the reduction in coverage never became effective, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant sent correspondence to the insured acknowledging the reduction and his policy premium was reduced by 75%.  The defendant argued that the qualifying phrase “if applicable” applied not only to any amendment form, but also to Part D itself, and that according to the plain language of the policy, Part D does not apply when an insured seeks to reduce a death benefit.  The Fifth DCA’s resolution of the dispute hinged upon rules of grammatical construction.  The Court discussed the “doctrine of the last antecedent,” which generally provides that relative and qualifying words, phrases and clauses are to be applied to the words or phrase immediately preceding and are not to be construed as extending to others more remote.  The Court noted that there is an exception is provided by a corollary “rule of punctuation” which provides that where the modifier is set off from two or more antecedents by a comma, the comma indicates the drafter's intent that the modifier relate to more than the last antecedent. As a result, the Fifth DCA concluded that under the terms of the contract the effective date limitation invoked by the surviving spouse never became operative because the submission of Part D was not required to reduce the policy limits and accordingly was not applicable.