Legal Interpreters Are Crucial to
Insurance Contract Translations
Involving Non-English Speaking Insureds

Legal Document Translations for the Insurance Industry

Certified legal interpreters and certified legal translators play an important role in insurance contracts involving non-English speaking insureds.  We’ve blogged about the importance of using certified legal translators in a variety of business matters, including legal contract translation, contract negotiations and sales transactions. The following summary involves two insurance related cases where the applicants could not read or write English and the difficulties-and eventual litigation-that ensued.

Hmong Legal Interpreting Services

In Yang v. Western-Southern Life Insurance Company (“WSLAC”), Soua Yang, a Hmong immigrant from Southeast Asia, applied for a life insurance policy. She died six months later. Yang could not read or speak English well. Although the insurance application was written in English, the insurance agent spoke fluent Hmong and asked Yang the questions on the application in English and clarified some of the questions in Hmong. Several of the questions on the application involved Yang’s prior medical history, and Yang reportedly told the agent that she had Hepatitis B and provided the name, address, and phone number of her physician.

Three weeks after Yang signed the application, a representative from the insurance company, with the assistance of a Hmong interpreter, called Yang and reviewed the questions with her.
During that conversation, which was recorded, Yang denied receiving any medical treatment or medication in the last five years. However, Yang had been diagnosed with Hepatitis B within 5 years of the application and had received treatment and medication for it. After Yang died, her brothers filed a claim for the death benefit. WSLAC denied the claim on the grounds that it would not have issued Yang a policy had she disclosed the fact that she had Hepatitis B on her application.

WSLAC filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted. On appeal, the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the district court, finding that “a reasonable jury could conclude that Yang gave truthful answers about her medical condition and that the agent recorded them incorrectly.” The court also found that Yang had put the agent on notice that she had Hepatitis B, and/or that Yang did not examine the application. Id.

Spanish Legal Interpreting Services

Recently, in another insurance-related case, a Louisiana state court granted summary judgment in favor of Allstate Insurance Company in an automobile accident case. In Ponce, et al. v. Welch, et. al., Case No. 15-CA-669, decided March 16, 2016, the plaintiffs were involved in a motor vehicle accident. The plaintiffs sued Allstate on the grounds that the plaintiff Ponce’s policy provided uninsured motorist (UM) coverage for their damages. Allstate filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that Ms. Ponce had waived UM coverage. In response, the plaintiffs submitted an affidavit from Ms. Ponce stated that her first language is Spanish and that she did not read, speak, or write English fluently. Ms. Ponce argued that she could not fully read and understand the insurance documents and did not understand that she was rejecting UM coverage in her policy when she applied for coverage. Allstate then filed a second motion for summary judgment where it submitted Ms. Ponce’s deposition in which she stated that she has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, could converse in English, and has applied for jobs and signed contracts in English. She further testified that the agent had explained what she had to sign on the UM selection form and had explained everything to her. The court granted Allstate’s motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeal affirmed. The court of appeal held that the plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that Ms. Ponce had waived the UM coverage. The court reasoned that Ms. Ponce had lived in the U.S. for many years, could converse in English, and did not testify that she told the agent she didn’t understand the insurance documents.

The above cases are just two of many scenarios that can arise when a foreign language speaker applies for insurance coverage. Similarly to translating financial statements and online financial document translation services, it is always beneficial to involve a certified legal translator, a certified legal interpreter, or both, to ensure that a non-English speaking applicant/party is fully aware of the terms of the contract. Involving professional legal translators and certified legal interpreters will not only ensure that the parties have a true “meeting of the minds,” but can help to avoid ambiguities later on, which often result in time-consuming and expensive litigation.

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