Ejusdem generis is a Latin phrase that roughly translates as “of the same kind, class, or nature.” Its use is similar to that of noscitur a sociis,1 in that it usually involves a list of terms, but in this case one that ends in a catch-all category. Whether a particular object or event not specifically referenced in that list is subject to the exclusionary function of the listing depends on its similarity to the other items in the listing.2
President Clinton was impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate. A president can be impeached for “treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors.” The question is, what constitutes the catch-all phrase “high crime or misdemeanor?” That’s an ejusdem generis question. The legal consensus was that such illegal activities must rise to the level of treason and bribery, and presumably the Senate collectively decided that this was not the case for the President’s actions or that the term was ambiguous.3
Insurance policies can be full of generic or ambiguous terms that can cause just that, ambiguity. Ejusdem generis is simply when a general word or phrase follows a list of specifics, the general word or phrase will be interpreted to include only items of the same type as those listed.4 The specific lists are not an exclusive, exhaustive class, but the central inquiry as to the meaning of the general words is to determine what falls within the same class as those specifically listed.5 So, the general words should be confined to things of the same kind.6 Otherwise, the legislature would have simply stated, “any building,” “any service,” “any vehicle,” or similar terms that pertain to policy coverage.
By setting out specific examples immediately preceding this general word or phrase, it is clear that the legislature did not intend its broadest meaning. It should be obvious that the general words are not limited to the identical things listed, but to those additional things of the same general kind. The general words following a specific listing of terms is commonly called a catchall or a more generalized description of what has preceded it in the statute. It is a point of advocacy as to what are the similar characteristics of the specifically listed terms in order to define the breadth of the catchall phrase. Ejusdem generis is simply inapplicable if there are no general words in the statutory phrase that could be characterized as a “catchall.”
In a more practical and insurance-oriented example, an expensive carved wooden bowl was broken. The adjuster denied the claim under the insured’s homeowners policy, citing an exclusion for “breakage of art glass windows, glassware, statuary, marble, bric-a-brac, porcelains, and similar fragile articles.” The question is whether a wooden bowl is “similar” in both nature and fragility to the items listed.
In another case, not a claim but a coverage dispute involving a new business homeowners application, a detached garage was separated from the dwelling by a covered breezeway that was roofed but without sides. The question was whether the garage was part of Coverage A, or if it was a Coverage B structure. At issue was the adequacy of the Coverage A and B limits, depending on what coverage the garage structure fell under. The homeowners policy defined Coverage B to apply to structures separated from the dwelling by clear space or those “connected to the dwelling by only a fence, utility line, or similar connection.” The question was whether the covered breezeway was “similar to” a fence or utility line. The new agent and underwriter agreed that it was not “similar,” and therefore, the value should be included in Coverage A.
In addition to illustrating the meaning of ejusdem generis, this last example also is an excellent example of how resolving coverage issues prior to loss, may prevent a claim dispute later. Avoiding or preventing a claim dispute is a far better approach than trying to resolve a denied claim after the loss has occurred.
Resolving claims is very often not about right or wrong, or correctness or incorrectness. It is often enough just to establish through logic and language that a term in dispute is ambiguous.
It is important to be aware of the ejusdem generis terms in policies before they become the center of discussion. Read the full policy and know exactly what it contains to avoid any ambiguity or lack of understanding. The terms in the policy will be limited under the rule of ejusdem generis, the general language following the list of particular items is construed to apply only to like items rather than being construed in its broadest sense.7
“There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.”
1 Noscitur a Sociis: [Latin “it is known by its associates”] A canon of construction holding that the meaning of an unclear word or phrase, esp. one in a list, should be determined by the words immediately surrounding it. Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).
2 Doyle v. State, 148 S.W.3d 611, 614 (Tex. App.—Austin 2004, pet. ref’d).
5 Tex. Dep’t of Transp. v. York, 284 S.W.3d 844, 847 (Tex. 2009).
6 Thomas v. State, 65 S.W.3d 38, 41 (Tex. Crim. App. 2001).
7 City of Houston v. Bates, 406 S.W.3d 539, 545 (Tex. 2013); SSP Partners v. Gladstrong Investments (USA) Corp., 275 S.W.3d 444, 450 n. 21 (Tex. 2008); State v. Fidelity and Deposit of Maryland, 223 S.W.3d 309, 311–312 (Tex. 2007); City of San Antonio v. Boerne, 111 S.W.3d 22, 29 (Tex. 2003).