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March 7, 2007

Virginia Court Splits: Textualism versus Purposivism Dispositive

In Travelers Property Casualty Co. of Am. v. Ely, 640 S.E.2d 520 (Va. App. 2007), an employer failed to pay a premium to renew its workers' compensation insurance.  A statute provided that notice to the Workers' Compensation Commission had to be given notice if the policy was "cancelled or non-renewed by the insurer issuing such policy..."  Va. Code 65.2-804(B).  The carrier didn't provide any notice, and then a worker was injured. The carrier declined coverage, but the Workers' Compensation Commission ordered coverage be allowed.

The Carrier appealed.  The Court of Appeals split.  The majority relied on the purpose of the statute, holding that even though the renewal was due to the insured's failure to pay, the renewal was "by the insurer" and so, because notice had not been provided, coverage persisted.  In part relying on in pari materia and context from amendments, the majority held that "non-renewed by eh insurer" included all non-renewals, not just insurer-initiated non-renewals.  It rejected the carrier's interpretation as failing "to acknowledge the purpose of the notice provisions."

In contrast, the dissent concluded that the statute meant what it said:  "An insurer must notify the employer and commission only whent he policy has been cancelled or nonrenewed 'by the insurer.'"  The dissent rejected the majority's approach, stating that there was no need to engage the question of whether the purpose of the statute was undermined because "when a statutory text speaks clearly on a subject, effect must be given to it regardless of what courts think of its wisdom or policy."

March 7, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink


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"Our analysis begins with the premise that the Workmen’s Compensation Act was adopted for the protection of workers and their dependents. Hartford Co. v. Fidelity, 223 Va. 641, 643 292 S.E.2d 327, 328 (1982)."

A rather nifty trick. The majority's conclusion follows from its premise, because its premise *is* its conclusion. Rather than examine whether the relevant statute favors the worker or the employer, the majority announces that the so-called "purpose" of the statute is to protect workers. It is not hard to see how its result follows from there; its result has been ordained by the "purpose" it has imposed on the statute.

In other cases, perhaps a court may argue that the "purpose" of the statute is to "limit the administrative burdens on employers by enacting a single coherent scheme governing their obligations," and then use *that* purpose to to find in favor of the employer, notwithstanding the contrary statutory text.

Both "purposes" strike me as equally invalid. Seems rather strange to reach a conclusion by assuming it.

Posted by: andy | Mar 7, 2007 8:09:50 AM

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