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News & views

Ambiguous certificate costs insurer £12,000

[5 Aug 2012] Plain Language Commission’s intervention has helped a motorist win a case he took to the Financial Ombudsman Service which, had he lost it, would have cost him £12,000 in car repairs (see also Pikestaff 49).

Paul Walker, the motorist, had an accident while driving his partner’s car. He thought his own fully comprehensive motor policy would pay out, but when he tried to claim the insurer said he was covered to drive anyone else's car except his partner’s.

The relevant sentence on the insurance certificate said: ‘Provided the policyholder is aged 25 or over, and not employed in the motor trade, he/she may also drive, with the owner’s permission, a motor car not belonging to, nor hired or leased to them or their partner.’

In our view, the main difficulties for a non-specialist customer were that the sentence:

  • is complicated because it has five commas
  • uses an unusual word order (syntax) that tends only to be seen in legal and insurance texts
  • goes against reasonable expectations because most people would expect to be covered for driving their partner’s insured vehicle
  • leads the reader up the garden path with the phrase ‘he/she may also drive’, which sounds like good news, then goes in the opposite direction with the negative phrase ‘not belonging to’
  • separates ‘not belonging to’ from ‘them or their partner’ by an intervening phrase, which makes it harder to understand, and
  • is badly drafted in at least one other way – there should be another comma after ‘leased to’. The lack of that comma means that the customer may put the comma where it gives him the most favourable meaning, though in this case it doesn't help.

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