APRIL 2016 BAD FAITH CASES: (1) PLAUSIBLE BAD FAITH CLAIM PLEADED BASED ON INSURER’S IME RESULTS, BUT (2) BAD FAITH CLAIM IS SEVERED AND STAYED (New Jersey Federal)

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In Abiona v. Geico Indemnity Company, the insurer sought to dismiss the underinsured motorist bad faith claim, and if not dismissed, then to sever and stay the bad faith claims.  The claim was not dismissed, but the court did agree to sever and stay the bad faith claim.

The insured alleged that the insurer completely denied UIM benefits, declined to participate in non-mandatory find arbitration, and failed to present any good faith settlement offer, despite the insured’s submitting extensive medical records to support the claim of severe and permanent injury.  This documentation allegedly included the insurer’s own IME report, which opined that “the insured is a surgical candidate from the injuries sustained by this accident if the epidural injection therapy does not resolve the significant pain from the herniated lumbar disc caused by this accident.”

In refusing to dismiss the bad faith claim, the court found that the insurer’s medical opinion that surgery could be required “nudges” the allegation of reckless disregard of the lack of a reasonable basis to deny the claim “across the line from conceivable to plausible.”

Next the court found it had jurisdiction to hear the case, when looking at the contract damages, and potential consequential and punitive damages permitted under New Jersey’s bad faith law.

On the issue of severance and stay, the court observed: “The prevailing practice in both state and federal court is to sever breach of insurance contract claims from bad faith claims, and to proceed with the contract claim before turning to the bad faith claim (if still necessary after adjudicating the contract claim).”  The court added that:  “Severance of a bad faith claim will often be desirable because, as courts have recognized, there is real potential for prejudice to the insurer should it ‘be required to produce its claim file prematurely.’”

The court accepted the insurer’s assertion that it would suffer prejudice without severance, and described the insured as “merely” arguing that judicial economy weighs against severance – a position contrary to the above-stated principles and numerous cases following those principles. It quoted from an earlier state court decision: “The toll on judicial economy by allowing full-disclosure up front . . . is obvious. Requiring simultaneous discovery on both claims will result in a significant expenditure of time and money, generally rendered needless if the insurer prevails on plaintiff’s UM or UIM claim.”  Thus, it granted the motion to stay and sever in the interests of judicial economy and to avoid prejudice to the insurer.

Date of Decision:  March 16, 2016

Abiona v. Geico Indem. Co., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34179 (D.N.J. Mar. 16, 2016) (Hillman, J.)

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