2015 BAD FAITH CASES: THIRD CIRCUIT AFFIRMS SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON BAD FAITH CLAIM WHERE NO DISPUTE OF FACT INVESTIGATION WAS REASONABLE, “INITIAL” SETTLEMENT OFFERS COULD BE MADE SUBJECT TO FURTHER DISCOVERY AND EVALUATION, AND INSURED FAILED TO SHOW SELF INTEREST OR ILL WILL UNDER THE SUPERIOR COURT’S GROSSI DECISION (Third Circuit)

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In Miezejewski v. Infinity Auto Insurance  Company, the insured was injured in an auto accident, and not only suffered physical injury, but alleged her physical condition deteriorated over time, causing her to be terminated from her employment.  She claimed that the carrier’s claim evaluation was too low, and failed to consider lost wages.  The district court granted the insurer summary judgment on the statutory bad faith claim.  On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed.

The carrier’s claim representative acknowledged the UIM claim and noted that the policy limit was $15,000. He requested all documents and records supporting the UIM claim from the insureds’ attorney. The representative was provided with various discovery materials discovered in the litigation against the tortfeasor, including  post-accident medical records and a transcript of a deposition of the insured’s former employer’s human relations manager. The claims representative reviewed the documents and questioned whether the insured’s pain stemmed from a pre-existing degenerative condition.

“The medical records, which raised red flags, included the ‘recommendation’ of an orthopaedic specialist who treated [the insured] for post-accident pain in her left knee: ‘I think this accident definitely exacerbated some pre-existing arthritis.’” In addition another doctor concurred, and the insured herself testified about the scope of her arthritis. This “post-accident medical information struck the claim representative as ‘indicative of prior related conditions that [he] would want to review.’” The insured never provided prior medical records; nor did their counsel  “at any point explain the absence of pre-accident treatment information.”

The claim representative also doubted whether the insured’s firing was accident-related. He noted that she was rated as either meeting or exceeding expectations on a performance evaluation four months after the car accident, and it was eight months later that she was fired. The claim representative characterized the former employer’s HR manager’s testimony as conflicting on the idea that she was rated well four months after the accident, but then the accident somehow caused her firing after that.

After a review of materials from the insured’s counsel, the adjuster evaluated the claim at $5-7,000 net the $25,000 from the tortfeasor. “The representative noted, ‘[a]nything more than that could require some additional discovery,’ including [the insured’s] pre-accident medical records and additional information concerning her termination.” Offers of $5,000 and then later $7,500 were rejected.

Applying the Superior Court’s Grossi decision, the Third Circuit stated the following standards to prove statutory bad faith, which must be accomplished through clear and convincing evidence: “The Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that to prevail under the bad faith statute, the insured must show that the insurer did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy and that the insurer knew of or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying the claim.’ An insurer need not engage in fraud to be subject to the statute; however, ‘mere negligence or bad judgment is not bad faith. The insured must also show that the insurer breached a known duty (i.e., the duty of good faith and fair dealing) through a motive of self-interest or ill will.’” [It is interesting to observe here that self-interest or ill-will appear to hold the status of elements of a bad faith claim, whereas there was some prior case law that self-interest or ill will are only evidence of the second element, and not an element themselves.]

Applying this test, the appellate court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the insurer on the bad faith claim.  “Consistent with [the insurer’s] ‘ongoing vital obligation,’ its claim representative acted in good faith—i.e. with a reasonable basis for his assessments and interactions with the [insureds]’ attorney—throughout ‘the entire management of the claim.’” The settlement offers fell within the initial valuation, and the insurer’s representative had emphasized they were not final, and informed the insureds’ counsel, however, that any higher offer would require some additional discovery as to the prior medical history and more information about why the insured was terminated. The court further noted that “after the close of discovery in this lawsuit, which included a deposition of the executive who made the termination decision, [the insurer] tendered to the [the insureds] the $15,000 policy limit they initially sought.”

The court specifically held that it is not bad faith for an insurer to make an initial settlement offer subject to further discovery and evaluation after that discovery. The court concluded that the insurer’s “representative acted reasonably in light of the evidence, both presented and inexplicably withheld.” Further, there was simply no evidence of self-interest or ill will.

Date of Decision:  April 28, 2015

Miezejewski v. Infinity Auto Ins. Co., No. 14-1603, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 6984 (3d Cir.  April 28, 2015)  (Roth, Ambro, and Fuentes, JJ.)

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