In reversing a District Court decision in a contentious insurance case, the Utah Court of Appeals recently turned to the font of communal wisdom, Wikipedia, in rendering its decision.
But before you decide the appeals judges were as lazy as college freshmen, it should be pointed out the decision to use Wikipedia wasn’t because of the open-source encyclopedia's high bar of accuracy, but because the resource is one well-suited for popular understandings of phrases and definitions.
In the appeals case decision rendered Aug. 16, Judges Carolyn McHughe, Frederic Voros Jr., and Gregory Orme were focused in particular on the popular, everyday use of the word “jet ski,” which led them to refer to “that great repository of contemporary wisdom, Wikipedia.”
The fact that nearly half the decision is spent discussing the legal precedent and appropriate context of citing Wikipedia suggests, however, that the judges weren’t just casually citing the website without forethought. Regardless, the decision has helped cement the online information warehouse’s place in the annals of Utah legal history, all for the sake of a disputed insurance claim resulting from an accident Robert Oltmanns and Brady Blackner suffered while taking a jaunt on a Honda F-12 AquaTrax personal watercraft on a southern Utah lake.
The plaintiffs sought coverage from Fire Insurance Exchange, which denied the claim under its homeowner policy that excluded coverage for bodily injury relating to “jet skis or jet sleds.” A District Court judge dismissed Ottomans and Blackner’s claim considering the word “jet skis” a common term for all personal watercraft. The plaintiffs, however, argued that Jet Ski is a trademark Kawasaki brand and can’t be applied to all watercraft. The appeals court moved in another direction and found that while the term couldn’t be expected to apply just to the Kawasaki-brand Jet Ski, that it was ambiguous.
Citing a Wikipedia entry, the court referred to the entry’s discussion about common misunderstandings of the term “jet ski” and how it can be misapplied not only to standing personal watercraft but also seated ones, like those used by the plaintiffs when they were injured.
“Intuitively, at least, it seems a motorized watercraft on which the rider stands up may be much more dangerous than one on which the rider is seated,” the decision reads.
The court didn’t exactly hand a win to plaintiffs, but it did reverse the previous decision and remand it to trial in District Court. The decision nevertheless spent plenty of legal ink explaining the rationale in citing Wikipedia and referenced a 2010 article noting Wikipedia being cited in 400 judicial opinions in the previous decade.
The decision also referenced the opinion of 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who cited Wikipedia in 2007 because of its colloquial value.
"While a prudent person would avoid a surgeon who bases his or her understanding of complicated medical procedures on an online source whose contributors range from expert scholars to Internet trolls,” the Utah court decision reads “where an understanding of the vernacular or colloquial is key to the resolution of a case, Judge Posner is correct that Wikipedia is tough to beat.”