Contra Proferentem: The Allure of Ambiguous Boilerplate

24 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2007  

Michelle Boardman

George Mason University School of Law

Abstract

Boilerplate is often ambiguous or incomprehensible, yet long lasting, especially in insurance contracts. This alienates consumers and is increasingly punished by courts construing the language against the drafter. There must be some hidden allure to ambiguous boilerplate. The popular theory is trickery: drafters lure consumers in with promising language that comes to nothing in court. But this trick would require consumers to do three things they do not do - read the language, understand it, and take comfort in it.

In insurance, there is a hidden allure to ambiguous boilerplate, but the trick lies in the courts, not the consumer. The trick is a private conversation between drafters and courts; excused from the table is the consumer, who could have no fair duty to understand and so has no duty to read. With the consumer out of the room, edits and additions to boilerplate are targeted to the courts alone. The new language need not make sense to a layman. It does not even need to make sense standing alone; a judge will read the language in the context of precedent, with the aid of briefing.

This article reveals how the interaction of insurance drafting and court interpretation (including contra proferentem) forms a strong barrier to the creation and use of new clearer boilerplate language.

Keywords: insurance, contracts, contra proferentem, boilerplate, reasonable expectations, interpretation

JEL Classification: K00, K12, K39, G22

Suggested Citation

Boardman, Michelle, Contra Proferentem: The Allure of Ambiguous Boilerplate. Michigan Law Review, Vol. 104, p. 1105, 2006. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=995282

Michelle Boardman (Contact Author)

George Mason University School of Law ( email )

3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
United States
703-993-8056 (Phone)

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