Squirrels Not “Vermin” According to Judge

Rats, agitated about their shrinking legal rights after judge rules that squirrels are better than them.

In a 1954 Georgia case, an insured sued his insurance company for property damage caused by a squirrel. The insurance company denied coverage under an exclusion for “vermin.” The issue was whether squirrels are vermin or some higher grade species. The court ruled for the plaintiff, stating (some paragraph breaks inserted):

The brief of counsel for the defendant in error (which, incidentally; includes an excellent recipe for squirrel stew) concludes with the following words, with which this court is inclined to agree:

“‘Vermin’ is a mighty harsh word to hurl at our little friend the squirrel. He has long been well considered and much thought of as a pet and an attractive addition to the scenery of any city, garden, or country yard. He is praised in song and story as a shining example to mankind of industry and thrift. It is respectfully submitted that this court should not label the little fellow as nothing more than ‘vermin’.”

It is all the easier to agree with this encomium, as the question of whether squirrels are vermin was submitted to the jury, and the plaintiff offered without objection a wealth of technical and opinion evidence to the effect that it is not so classified (vermin being “any noxious, mischievous or disgusting animal”), whereas the defendant failed to place our furry friend within the limitations of this category.

He certainly does not belong there as a matter of law, and as a matter of fact we are well content to leave the verdict undisturbed, there being no evidence to the contrary.

Nutkin the Squirrel would be pleased.  As someone pointed out in a comment, this case is amusing, but also a good lesson in the importance of paying attention to every word when drafting legal documents, especially documents such as insurance policies that by their very nature depend on definitions.

North British & Mercantile Ins. Co. v. Mercer, 82 S.E.2d 41 (Ga. App. 1954). Thanks to Paul Scott.

2 comments to Squirrels Not “Vermin” According to Judge

  • Nancy Germond

    I use this example when I teach in the insurance industry. It illustrates a few points: 1) That judges rule their kingdom in a very personal, and sometimes peculiar, way. 2) You’ll be proving your case against some very articulate, erudite and intelligent people, so your writing skills must shine.

    • Andrew J. McClurg

      Very true. It helps teach the crucial importance of paying close attention to each word choice when writing a legal document.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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