Insurance companies don't have to make state-mandated offers of certain kinds of coverage in Spanish, even if that's the language the person speaks, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices acknowledged that state law requires insurers to tell motorists they have the right to purchase protection from situations where another driver is either uninsured or lacks sufficient coverage to pay for all the medical bills incurred. And that notice, they said, must be in writing.
But Chief Justice Rebecca Berch said if state lawmakers wanted to require insurance companies to provide that notice in Spanish, they would have spelled that out in state law. Absent that, Berch said, there is no obligation to translate the offering.
Berch also said the question of whether the motorist buying the insurance understood what was being offered is irrelevant. The only thing that is, she said, is whether the offer was made as required by law.
"Whether an offer was made turns only on whether a reasonable person would understand that a proposal of terms was made,'' she wrote. The subjective understanding of that offer by the motorist does not matter, Berch said.
The case involves Luis Ballesteros who bought an automobile insurance policy from American Standard Insurance Co. of Wisconsin.
Because his primary language is not English, a Spanish-speaking staffer helped him complete his application. The insurance agent also gave Ballesteros an English-language form, approved by the state Department of Insurance, informing him of his right to purchase these optional coverages.
Ballesteros signed the form in the place indicating he declined.
Several months later his mother-in-law, who was covered under his policy, died in a collision with an uninsured driver. When his claim for coverage was denied, Ballesteros sued, saying the failure to offer him the coverage as required by state law means he is entitled to it automatically.
A trial judge agreed, saying the English-language offer was not designed to bring Ballesteros' attention to the offer. But Berch said that was wrong.
Berch said while Arizona at one time required motorists to purchase both types of insurance, the current law says it only must be offered. It also directs the Department of Insurance to come up with the proper form.
She said that form complies with the law because it would be understood by a reasonable person.
Berch said the fact that state regulators also approved a Spanish-language form does not make its use mandatory. The justice cited a legal brief submitted by the state insurance director saying that form is provided "as a matter of convenience for insurers, rather than a mandate for use.''