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Declaiming insurance: From top to bottomry | Marcel Strigberger

Friday, May 14, 2021 @ 2:36 PM | By Marcel Strigberger

Marcel Strigberger %>
Marcel Strigberger
As lawyers, many of us exercise our access to justice by either fighting insurance companies or defending them. Sue or defend, we are all connected with insurance by buying it. When did insurance start?

It’s suggested that insurance originated with Babylonian King Hammurabi around 1750 B.C. He encoded the concept of “bottomry,” where a merchant, for a few shekels extra, would not have to repay his creditor’s loan unless the ship arrived safely.

No idea why it’s called bottomry. Given my experiences litigating against insurance companies, it likely related to a coverage exclusion. The merchant whose stuff never arrived would plead with the creditor to forgive the loan and the creditor would balk, saying, “Can you prove your merchandise ended up at the bottom of the sea?”

Claim denied.

My first experience with insurance was in Montreal when I was about 7. A pesky life insurance agent, one Jean-Pierre, came to our house trying to sell my father a policy. He gained admittance to our house, winning our confidence as he used to send us a calendar annually. My dad however grew impatient, telling calendar man to call him in a week. Jean-Pierre then uttered a frightening comment, “What if, meanwhile, something should happen to you?”

This ominous comment rattled me. My father laughed, but after explaining it to me, I became even more spooked. I almost expected the shoe to drop. We went to the barber the next day, and I clenched my hands when I saw the barber sharpen his razor. To my delight, the barber only gave my dad’s sideburns a good trim. Phew!  

My next contact with insurance was in my teens when I applied for a summer job at a large insurance company. The interviewer was an elderly, seasoned insurance gentleman, somewhat resembling Sir Winston Churchill. He told me he saw beauty in insurance, noting, “An airplane can’t get off the ground without insurance.” He followed up with an uncontrollable belly laugh.

I, for some reason, was readily able to contain my laughter. Sir Winston didn’t hire me. I guess that interview was not my finest hour.

My discomfort with insurance companies refreshed.

What always impressed me is the opulence of these leviathans. Most downtowns have office towers named after insurance giants.

Montreal hosts the century-plus old Sunlife Building, once the largest building in the British Commonwealth. Interestingly this building secretly housed Britain’s gold reserves during the Second World War after being shipped to Canada in 1940 in crates labelled “fish.” This stealth event was called, “Operation Fish.” (Creative wasn’t it!)

I wonder if the gold was insured. The war ends and the gold is missing in action. Churchill sues.

The insurance company claims misrepresentation as the manifest said “kippers.” Insurer refuses coverage saying to Churchill, “Your claim sleeps with the fishes.”

Claim denied. (Good for him for not hiring me.)

Many of my cases in practice involved motor vehicle accidents; i.e. insurance. For fun I Googled to find out when the first two-car accident happened. I found that in 1895 there were only two cars in Cleveland, and they collided. No clue how. Maybe it would have helped had there been a radio traffic report, allowing each driver to take evasive measures:

Driver Smith: I hear Williams is on Lakeshore Avenue. I’d best wait until he leaves.

Driver Williams: I hope Smith heard that and doesn’t come near me with his jalopy.

I don’t know how the insurers worked that one out. Presumably, the desks of the respective adjusters were not too cluttered with files.

My practice also included property damage claims, fire and theft (not bottomry).

Insurers frequently denied fire claims, suggesting insured arson. They would conduct an intensive credit investigation, concluding that the insured needed money. Insurers don’t require my advice, as I’m retired, I’ll offer it: To securely underpin this arson motive, why don’t they just specify it as an exclusion?


            ... 23g) We do not insure loss or damage caused by fire where the insured directly or indirectly needs, wants or enjoys money.”

This provision should about cover all potential claims.

Claim denied.

What often amazes me is that insurers readily pay out thousands of dollars, no problem, but recoil on nickel-and-dime items. Once, while on a cruise, I developed a medical issue and the good ship’s doctor told me to check it out further at a hospital when we docked in China. My travel insurer reimbursed the transportation to the hospital and medical costs but balked at paying the $50 bill for the translator the ship arranged to accompany me. The adjuster insisted my policy did not encompass translators. 

On the one hand, his position annoyed me. On the other hand, I was flattered that he thought I could manoeuvre my way from the port, to and through the hospital administration and examination experience because, no doubt, he presumed I was fluent in Mandarin. The only word or sound that may have come in handy with the doctor would have been “Ah.”

Fortunately, eventually they honoured it. They appreciated my efforts to access justice.

Given that we drive cars, live in houses and travel, can a day in our lives pass during which insurance does not have a presence?

As for that life insurance, Jean-Pierre never followed up with my father. I don’t know why. Maybe something happened to him. 
Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. Visit Follow him @MarcelsHumour.

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