Archive for the 'PA – Coverage Issues' Category

COMMON PLEAS JUDGE FINDS BAD FAITH FOR (1) RELYING ON UNWARRANTED RED FLAGS; (2) REACHING COVERAGE CONCLUSIONS UNSUPPORTED BY ACTUAL FACTS; (3) UNREASONABLE INTERPRETATION OF POLICY’S COVERAGE LANGUAGE; (4) DRAWING UNWARRANTED CONCLUSIONS FROM EXPERT REPORT; (5) FAILING TO INVESTIGATE FULLY; (6) VIOLATING UIPA (Common Pleas Lehigh)

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Today’s post summarizes Lehigh County Judge Melissa Pavlack’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in this breach of contract and bad faith case.

The Court’s Factual Findings

The insureds’ car was stolen. It was recovered, but with considerable damage. The insureds’ license plate was replaced with a stolen plate. The court found that the thieves never intended to return the vehicle. The insureds sought coverage based on the theft and vandalism, relying on policy language covering theft, larceny, vandalism, and malicious mischief.

The court found the insureds were not involved in any way with the theft or vandalism, nor was there any fraud on their part. The car was deemed a total loss, and valued at around $13,000. There were additional costs for hauling and storage, bringing the total claim to approximately $17,000.

The insurer denied the claim, citing insufficient evidence the car had been stolen. It refused to consider a separate vandalism claim because the damages arose out of an alleged theft. Thus, the insurer did not investigate the vandalism claim, and the denial letter never addressed the vandalism claim’s merits. The insurer never cited any policy exclusions applying to the vandalism claims. There was also no denial based on fraud.

The insurer’s investigation included a claim’s adjuster and supervisor, a fraud investigator, an appraiser, an appraisal report, an investigator and three investigator reports, an examination under oath over the telephone and in person, document requests, and a site visit to the loss location. At trial, the adjuster could not recall which of the insured’s statements under oath led to the claim denial.

The investigator reported to the carrier that one of the insureds was uncooperative because she did not bring unredacted tax returns and cell phone records to her examination under oath. Relying on this alleged lack of cooperation, the claims supervisor wrote to the insured that she had failed to cooperate by not bringing these tax returns and records, and failed to cooperate with the insurer’s investigation. However, the investigator was not aware that another of the insurer’s representatives had actually instructed the insured to bring redacted copies of the tax returns to the examination under oath, which she did.

As to other document issues allegedly evidencing a failure to cooperate, it was made clear during the examination under oath that the insured was a medical professional. She could not simply produce her phone records without violating HIPAA. She attempted to cooperate during the examination under oath by showing some messages in her phone from the days in question; but the adjuster was also concerned about HIPAA, and was hesitant to proceed with looking at her phone. Further, the court found the insured could not respond to the insurer’s request for the car purchase documents because these had been stolen from the glove compartment.

Moreover, in contrast to assertions that the insureds failed to cooperate, the court found that the insurer’s fraud investigator conceded the insureds had cooperated, and had provided documents requested in the manner requested.

As to the allegation there was insufficient evidence of theft, the insurer relied upon its expert report. The expert opined there was no forced entry, and that the car only could have been moved using a key. The court found (1) the insurance policy did not require forced entry as a condition precedent to establish theft, and (2) the car could be moved without a key. Further, the insurer’s fraud investigator testified that cars can be stolen without noticeable signs of forced entry, and there was other testimony to the same effect. The court also found that the fraud investigator never communicated with the claim adjuster that forced entry was not required to steal a car.

In sum, the court found these conclusions (forced entry and use of a key) were not reasonable bases to deny the very existence of a theft.

Most significantly, the expert only opined the car was not stolen by means of forced entry, and that a key had to have been used. Whether or not these conclusions were correct was irrelevant in the court’s view, because the expert never opined the car was not stolen. Thus, it was an error to make the leap that the car was not stolen, as it could have been stolen by some means other than forced entry, or could have been moved without a key.

There was Coverage for Theft, Vandalism, and Malicious Mischief

In addressing the breach of contract claim, the court looked at the policy’s plain language. The policy expressly covered theft, larceny, vandalism, and malicious mischief. There were no applicable exclusions in this case, so the court only had to interpret the coverage language.

The court looked at the dictionary definition of these terms, rather than any criminal statutes or case law defining vandalism, theft, etc. It concluded the facts of the case fell within these coverage terms, and the insureds claims were covered. As to bad faith, it was unreasonable to conclude the facts at hand did not fall within the policy’s plain and unambiguous language. Further, the court found the insurer’s conduct unreasonable in failing to consider coverage for vandalism and malicious mischief when denying the claims.

Court uses Unfair Insurance Practices Act and Unfair Claim Settlement Practices Regulations as Standards

The court cited (1) Unfair Claim Settlement Practice regulations (UCSP), 31 Pa. Code § 146.4, on obligations to fully disclose coverages and benefits; and (2) the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA), 40 Pa.S.A. § 1171.5(a)(10)(iv), on failing to reasonably explain a claim denial.

The court cited these UCSP and UIPA provisions in the context of the first bad faith prong, lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits. The court then observed the insurer had completely failed to consider the vandalism and malicious mischief claims covered under the policy. This supported the existence of bad faith, though it is not wholly clear whether the UCSP and UIPA violations were evidence of bad faith conduct, or were bad faith per se.

[We have previously posted on how courts treat alleged violations of UCSP regulations and the UIPA in bad faith cases, ranging from (1) their being completely outside the scope of consideration in determining bad faith, (2) as constituting potential evidence of bad faith, or (3) as amounting to statutory bad faith. It is not quite clear in the present case which of the latter two standards applied. Even without citing the UCSP or UIPA, however, it would seem the court’s finding that the insurer gave no regard to plainly covered vandalism claims was a basis for bad faith, regardless of any UCSP or UIPA violations.]

Erroneous Red Flags

The insurer justified its conduct by identifying certain “red flags” that caused legitimate doubt in the insureds veracity. When scrutinized, however, the court found these red flags were based on factual errors or erroneous assumptions.

  1. The insured was deemed uncooperative for failing to attend a unilaterally scheduled examination under oath. In fact, however, the court found the insured gave sufficient notice she could not attend on that date, and cooperated in rescheduling the examination under oath on another date, at which she appeared. She also had agreed to, and participated in, an examination over the phone.

As to the original date for the in-person examination, the court observed that the insurer knew in advance the insured was not going to appear on the first scheduled date, but still had its representatives appear to make a record against the insured for failing to appear.

  1. The insurer also asserted the insured was uncooperative because she provided redacted tax returns. As stated above, the insurer’s own representative had informed the insured in writing that certain redactions could be made. Further, when the insurer later requested an unredacted return, the insureds provided it.

  2. As to the alleged lack of cooperation on cell phone records, this was fully addressed during the examination under oath. As stated above, the insured was a medical professional and there were certain items on her phone records that could not be produced under HIPAA. That being said, she still offered to let the insurer’s representative look at her cell phone during the examination under oath, regarding non-HIPAA messages from the date the car was stolen. The adjuster was concerned about violating HIPAA, and was hesitant to do so.

  3. The insurer also deemed it a red flag that the loss came shortly after the policy’s purchase. This turned out to be an error. The court found the policy was purchased at least six months earlier. Another suspicion surrounded alleged excessive mileage on the car, which the court found was likewise not factually the case.

Failure to Fully Investigate the Red Flags

The court observed that while the insurer took the insured’s examination under oath, and conducted various investigations based on these alleged red flags, it failed to contact the police. Nor did the insurer follow up on evidence that drugs reportedly were found in the glove compartment. Though not expressly stated in the conclusions of law, this implies that the presence of drugs, under all the facts, favored the idea that strangers had stolen the car for nefarious purposes.

The Insurer Relied on its Expert Report for the Wrong Conclusion

For the court, the coverage issue concerning the insurer’s expert was simple: Was the car stolen? The issue was not: How was the car stolen?

The expert opined on two means by which the car was not stolen. The court found the expert never opined, however, that the car was not stolen. Moreover, the insurer never argued that the insureds faked a theft or lied about it.

The court pointed out that other means could have been used to steal the car, including non-intrusive and non-mechanical means. For example, after the car was recovered it was towed twice. The court found this demonstrated the car could be moved without forced entry and/or without a key.

Thus, the insurer’s reliance on the expert report to deny the fundamental existence of theft was unreasonable. The court found relying on the expert report to reach a conclusion (no theft) on which the report did not render an opinion, amounted to a knowing or reckless unreasonable denial of benefits, i.e. bad faith.

After finding bad faith on all the foregoing grounds, the court stated it would schedule a hearing on attorney’s fees, interest, and punitive damages.

Date of Decision: December 27, 2019

Unterberg v. Mercury Insurance Company of Florida, Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County Case No. 2016-C-806 (Dec. 27, 2019) (Pavlack, J.)

Thanks to Daniel Cummins of the excellent and extremely useful Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.

NO BAD FAITH WHERE EXCLUSION APPLIES AND NO COVERAGE DUE (Western District)

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Plaintiff loaned her car to her boyfriend. Unknown to her, the boyfriend’s license was suspended. He got into an accident, and the carrier denied coverage based on an exclusion for drivers with suspended licenses. Plaintiff sued for bad faith and breach of contract. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The court granted the insurer’s motion.

The dispute centered on the policy exclusion. The court analyzed the exclusion in detail based on the policy language and facts of the case, finding the exclusion applied. The court rejected the insured’s piecemeal policy reading as contrary to governing standards requiring the policy to be viewed “in its entirety, giving effect to all of its provisions,” with the policy’s words “construed in their natural, plain, and ordinary sense”.

Thus, the insured’s “attempts to read ambiguity into [policy] sections where none exist [] cannot demonstrate bad faith or breach of contract as a matter of law.”

Date of Decision: December 20, 2019

Lewandowski v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Civil Action No. 18-1441, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 218713, 2019 WL 7037587 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 20, 2019) (Bissoon, J.)

1. GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS IN DEFINING SCOPE OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH; 2. MOTION TO SEVER AND STAY DENIED; 3. COURT OUTLINES PROPER PRIVILEGE LOG AND CHALLENGE PROCESS (Middle District)

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The good news: The court in Ferguson v. USAA General Indemnity takes on the issue of whether a statutory bad faith claim can survive if the insured’s breach of contract claim fails, and does an historical analysis of the statute and case law to reach a conclusion.

The bad news: The court does not address the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life. As we have observed over the years, Toy requires the denial of a benefit as a necessary predicate for statutory bad faith claims. Yet, numerous courts have applied pre-Toy case law, or cases rooted in pre-Toy case law, in holding that bad faith might exist outside of that context, e.g., solely for unfair claims handling or unreasonable failures to communicate. These courts have not directly addressed the argument that Toy apparently rejected that possibility, and that poor conduct may be evidence of bad faith, but not cognizable bad faith in itself where no benefit is denied.

We are not speaking of the situation where there is a contractually due benefit that the insurer belatedly pays. As Toy itself makes clear, there is little dispute that delay in paying a benefit can still support a bad faith case on the basis that this denies a benefit. Rather, we are speaking of the situation where there is no indemnity or defense of any kind contractually due, and the insurer prevails on the breach of contract count. Attached here is an article addressing Toy’s distinction between bad faith conduct that is necessary to make out a cognizable cause of action, and bad faith conduct that is only evidentiary in nature.

The Ferguson court, and similar cases, are concerned with dishonest claims handling and unreasonable delay even in cases where no coverage was ultimately due. They may want to inhibit poor conduct on the claims handling end that is driven by a presently unsubstantiated hope that there will be no coverage at the end of the day. In the court’s words, statutory bad faith exists to “generally regulate dishonest conduct by insurers….” This dishonest conduct still can be punished even if no coverage is due because “[h]olding otherwise could potentially result in insurers taking the gamble that a denial based on a cursory review will be rescued by a clever trial lawyer.”

Arguably, this interpretation runs counter to the Supreme Court’s decision in Toy, which concludes that there must be a denial of a benefit accompanying such poor claims handling. This reading of Toy implies that dishonest conduct where no coverage is due and no benefit denied is left to regulation by the Insurance Commissioner, not the courts.

In one of the few cases addressing this aspect of Toy, previously summarized on this Blog, another district court states:

Even assuming that the bad faith denial of the benefits claimed by plaintiff was properly alleged in the Complaint, plaintiff’s argument fails because plaintiff does not allege the denial of any benefits within the meaning of the statute. “‘[B]ad faith’ as it concern[s] allegations made by an insured against his insurer ha[s] acquired a particular meaning in the law.” Toy v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 593 Pa. 20, 928 A.2d 186, 199 (Pa. 2007). Courts in Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit have consistently held that “[a] plaintiff bringing a claim under [§ 8371] must demonstrate that an insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured through ‘any frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay proceeds of a policy.'” Wise v. Am. Gen. Life Ins. Co., 459 F.3d 443, 452 (3d Cir. 2006) (emphasis added); see also Nw. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Babayan, 430 F.3d 121, 137 (3d Cir. 2005); Toy, 593 Pa. at 41. None of the “benefits” that defendant allegedly denied plaintiff concern the refusal to pay proceeds under an insurance policy. To the contrary, plaintiff concedes that he “does not allege bad faith for refusal to pay benefits.”

Motion to sever claims and stay discovery denied

As stated, the Ferguson court determined a bad faith claim could proceed independently of the breach of contract claim, even if the breach of contract claim failed. The court reached this conclusion in the context of a motion to stay discovery and sever the breach of contract and bad faith claims. After reaching this conclusion, the court reviewed and denied the motion to sever and stay.

Even if conceptually distinct, the breach of contract and bad faith claims are “significantly intertwined from a practical perspective.” By way of example, the court states that both claims will involve discovery on “the nature of Plaintiffs’ injuries; and … what efforts did the insurer make to investigate Plaintiffs’ injuries.”

Trying to separate the two claims and stay discovery “would potentially create a discovery mess, requiring truncated depositions, interrogatories, and requests for production, only to have them all re-started following the conclusion of the first leg. This risk of judicial inefficiency warrants denial of Defendant’s request.” In sum, “Defendant’s request is, at root, asking the court to manipulate this case’s procedural framework in a way that will make litigation convenient for insurers, which the court will not do.”

This is how to handle the privilege and work product process

The court did observe there might still be legitimate attorney client privilege or work product issues. The court outlined how the parties should address this issue:

“This issue, however, is not properly before the court at this time. Defendant has not filed a protective order, nor has Plaintiff yet moved to compel. While Plaintiffs have requested the court conduct an in camera review of Defendant’s claims file, it will only do so if Plaintiffs show which parts of the claims file they may legally be entitled to. While Plaintiffs’ brief fails to do as much, they were unable to in part because Defendant has not provided an adequate privilege log.”

An adequate privilege log requires the party asserting the privilege to set forth sufficient facts as to each document at issue, and is further required to “establish each element of the privilege or immunity that is claimed. The focus is on the specific descriptive portion of the log, and not on conclusory invocations of the privilege or work-product rule.”

The court instructed the insurer “to provide an amended privilege log supplying some of the underlying factual bases for its privilege and work product claims—but not so much that it effectively discloses any such privileged information—so that Plaintiffs may raise, by brief, the parts of the privilege log they believe Defendant has failed to show are privileged.” After these steps are taken, the “court can then decide whether to conduct an in camera inspection of certain portions of the insurer’s claim file.”

Date of Decision: December 5, 2019

Ferguson v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 1:19-cv-401, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 209579 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 5, 2019) (Rambo, J.)

COURT ALLOWS FOR POSSIBILITY OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH, EVEN WHERE NO BENEFIT DUE – BUT STILL DENIES CLAIM (Western District)

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The court determined no coverage was due under a policy exclusion in this water damage case. Thus, there could be no statutory bad faith claim on the basis coverage was improperly denied.

However, even though no benefit was denied under the policy, the court concluded that denial of a benefit was only one type of statutory bad faith. Under this view, failures to investigate facts, communicate with insureds, or do proper legal research could still create actionable bad faith claims even if no duty to indemnify or defend exists under the policy. [Note: As this Blog has set forth on many occasions, this view is questionable, i.e., the denial of a benefit is a sine qua non of statutory bad faith, and poor investigation or communication are only evidence of bad faith where a benefit has been denied, and cannot be a stand-alone basis for bad faith claims where no benefit is denied.]

Even under this broader standard, the court granted the insurer summary judgment. The insured asserted inadequate investigation bad faith concerning the cause of water damage in this case. It alleged the investigation was too brief, the inspector did not investigate all areas of the property, and did not communicate with the insured about the loss. The plaintiff admitted the adjuster did investigate a burst public water supply pipe from which all of the alleged property damage originated.

The court found because the policy excluded losses originating from a burst water supply pipe, there was in fact no need for any further investigation. “Under these circumstances, any additional investigation would not have changed the outcome of [the] decision to deny [the insured’s] claim.” Thus, there was insufficient “evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] performed an inadequate investigation or otherwise acted in bad faith in its handling [the] claim.” [Note: It is clear that the policy’s coverage language defining benefits due informed the court’s decision on what constituted a reasonable investigation.]

Thus, summary judgment was granted on the bases that there was no improper benefit denial, and no bad faith investigation.

Date of Decision: November 21, 2019

Sypherd Enterprises, Inc. v. Auto-Owners Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania 2022102:18-CV-00141-MJH, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 202210 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 2019) (Horan, J.)

It is interesting to compare this case to the statement of principles governing actionable statutory bad faith claim in last week’s post on Judge Beetlestone’s Purvi decision.

ASSAULT OR BATTERY EXCLUSION ENCOMPASSES ALLEGATIONS AGAINST INSURED FOR ALLEGEDLY CREATING CONDITIONS THAT ALLOWED THE ASSAULT OR BATTERY (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this case, an insurer won declaratory judgment on coverage based on an assault or battery exclusion. Fineman Krekstein & Harris partner Diane B. Sher and associate Matthew E. Selmasska were successful counsel for the declaratory judgment plaintiff in this action.

The underlying plaintiff was shot in a parking lot, and brought an action against various parties other than the unknown assailant. The underlying complaint went out of its way to make clear that there was no assault and battery count, but only claims for negligence or recklessness against parties whose alleged failures to make the parking lot safe enabled the shooting.

One defendant in the underlying action had a commercial general liability policy with an “Assault or Battery Exclusion” excluding coverage for personal injury damages arising out of an assault, battery, or physical altercation. This exclusion had four subparagraphs defining its scope, which were broad and went well beyond the actual acts of assault, battery, or physical altercation, e.g., coverage was excluded “[w]hether or not [the personal injury from the assault, battery, or physical altercation was] caused by or arising out of an insured’s failure to properly supervise or keep an insured’s premises in a safe condition.…”

The CGL insurer filed a declaratory judgment action that there was no duty to defend or indemnify, nor any duty to defend or indemnify as to any cross-claims for indemnification or contribution against the insured in the underlying action.  It moved for judgment on the pleadings.

The court concluded that “the fact that the exclusion covers acts and omissions in connection with the prevention of an assault or battery means that [the insurer] is not obligated to defend its insured from allegations that the insured’s failure to take certain precautions resulted in [the insured’s] injuries.”

Thus, the court granted the insurer’s motion for judgment on the pleadings on all counts.

Date of Decision: October 2, 2019

Great Lakes Insurance SE v. Smithwick, U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. 2:18-cv-04797, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 171622 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 2, 2019).

THIRD CIRCUIT FINDS KVAERNER DOES NOT APPLY TO POLICY USING “EXPECTED OR INTENDED” LANGUAGE TO DEFINE “OCCURRENCE” (Third Circuit)

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While not directly a bad faith case, this Third Circuit decision creates an important annotation to the Kvaerner doctrine. Specifically, after last week’s Sapa Extrusions decision, insureds, insurers, and their counsel must now scrutinize the specific definition of “occurrence” to determine if Kvaerner controls, at least in federal courts applying Pennsylvania law. [It is also realistic to expect that Pennsylvania’s state courts will strongly consider Sapa Extrusion’s persuasive value as well.]

The case involved millions of allegedly faulty products sold by the insured to a window contractor, which were then incorporated into millions of windows. Those windows had to be replaced, and the contractor brought suit against the insured. That case settled for a large sum. The insured sought recovery for the settlement sum against 28 different insurance policies.

The District Court found that there was no “occurrence” under the Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court’s Kvaerner decision and its progeny, and ruled for the insurers. The Third Circuit agreed that nineteen of the policies were subject to Kvaerner’s principles, but nine were not. It sent those nine policies back to the District Court for further analysis on whether there could be coverage.

By way of background, in Kvaerner U.S., Inc. v. Commercial Union Insurance Co., 908 A.2d 888 (Pa. 2006), Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court established the principle that faulty workmanship is not an “occurrence,” and therefore is not covered under a liability policy. In, e.g., Millers Capital Insurance Co. v. Gambone Brothers Dev. Co., 941 A.2d 706 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2008) and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. v. CPB International, Inc., 562 F.3d 591 (3d Cir. 2009), the courts further explained that Kvaerner’s interpretation of occurrence likewise did not encompass the reasonably foreseeable consequences of faulty workmanship. In the 2013 Indalex case, Pennsylvania’s Superior Court explained that Kvaerner did not govern faulty product claims against the product manufacturer for off-the-shelf products purchased by contractors.

As now set forth in Sapa Extrusions, however, Kvaerner only establishes its meaning of “occurrence” based on the specific policy language at issue in that case, i.e., Kvaerner does not automatically apply to all occurrence policies regardless of how occurrence is defined. Looking at the language of all 28 policies in this case, the Third Circuit found that Kvaerner and its progeny did not apply to some of those policies because their language defining “occurrence” differed from the policy language in Kvaerner.

In Kvaener, occurrence was defined as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” The Third Circuit called this the “accident definition” of occurrence. Under Kvaerner, this definition measures occurrence by an objective standard of what constitutes an accident, and faulty workmanship cannot objectively constitute an accident by its very nature.

The Third Circuit contrasted the accident definition with the “expected/intended definition” of occurrence. The expected/intended definition defined occurrence “as ‘an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to conditions, which results in Bodily Injury or Property Damage neither expected nor intended from the standpoint of the Insured.’” [Emphasis added] This definition is similar to the “injurious exposure definition,” which defines occurrence as “’injurious exposure, including continuous or repeated exposure, to conditions, which results, during the policy period, in personal injury or property damage … neither expected or intended from the standpoint of the insured.’” [Emphasis added]

The court found that the expected or intended language created a subjective standard for determining whether an act was an accident, as expressed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in United Services Automobile Association v. Elitzky, 517 A.2d 982 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1986). Thus, the Third Circuit found that the “expected or intended” language in the latter two types of policy definitions took the meaning of occurrence outside the objective rule applied in Kvaerner.

The panel concluded:

(1) “For the seven policies that contain the Expected/Intended Definition of ‘occurrence,’ we hold that the Insured’s Intent Clause triggers the subjective-intent standard from Elitzky. We will vacate the District Court’s decision as it relates to these policies and remand for further consideration consistent with this opinion.”

(2) “And for the two policies that contain the Injurious Exposure Definition of ‘occurrence,’ since they also include the Insured’s Intent Clause, we will vacate the District Court’s decision and remand for further consideration consistent with this opinion.”

The court took “no position on whether [the insured] may ultimately recover under any of the policies we are remanding to the District Court for more consideration. Given the extensive record and the amount in controversy, the parties should be afforded the opportunity to develop their coverage arguments, including various theories of triggering conditions, under those policies before the District Court in the first instance.”

Date of Decision: September 13, 2019

Sapa Extrusions, Inc. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 18-2206, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 27668, 2019 WL 4384187 (3d Cir. Sept. 13, 2019) (Fisher, Porter, Restrepo, JJ.)

1. POSSIBLE BAD FAITH FOR IMPROPER RESCISSION AND UNREASONABLY INADEQUATE INVESTIGATION, BUT 2. NO BAD FAITH FOR ALLEGED VIOLATIONS OF THE UIPA OR UCSP REGULATIONS, OR FOR ALLEGEDLY SWITCHING DENIAL THEORIES (Western District)

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The insured purchased various life insurance coverages for her son. She answered no to questions about whether he had any chronic health problems requiring periodic medical care. The terms chronic and periodic were undefined, as to, e.g., what kinds of illness fell under this question and what constituted “periodic” treatment. She answered no. Medical records subsequently showed the son some had gastric issues, lymph issues, and had been in rehab for marijuana dependency on two occasions.

The son was shot in the head and killed. The insurer denied coverage and invoked rescission. The insurer took the position that the mother had failed to disclose that he had chronic conditions that required periodic medical care.

The mother brought claims for breach of contract and bad faith. The insurer sought summary judgment on the bad faith claims. During discovery, the insurer took the position that the marijuana use, along with lymph and gastric problems met the definition of chronic illnesses needing periodic treatment, though later appeared to back off this position on the lymph and gastric allegations on periodic treatment grounds.

The court observed that the first bad faith element, concerning the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the insurer’s benefit denial, is objective. Thus, if a reasonable basis exists for an insurer’s decision, even if the insurer did not rely on that reason, there is no bad faith as a matter of law. It then described the other bad faith elements, and the burden of proof requiring clear and convincing evidence.

There were four types of bad faith claims at issue in the case:

  1. Refusal to pay insurance proceeds and rescission of the Policies.

The court found that the jury could conclude rescission was unreasonable in determining the son’s marijuana, lymph, and gastric allegations, were reasonable bases to rescind. The court further found that rescinding based on the lymph or gastric issues could go to the jury on intent/recklessness because there was apparently no periodic treatment in the record.

As to the marijuana issue, the mother explained to the insurer why she did not think the son’s stints in rehab constituted periodic treatment. Rescission required a knowing misrepresentation. A jury could find it reckless to conclude that this was a knowing misrepresentation on the mother’s part.

In sum, the bad faith claims could proceed on the rescission issue.

  1. Lack of investigation into the facts regarding the son’s alleged medical conditions.

The court allowed a bad faith claim for an unreasonably inadequate investigation to proceed as well. First, the court stated that an unreasonably inadequate investigation could be a separate ground for bad faith. It noted, however, while the law does require a thorough investigation, that investigation need not be flawless.

The insurer took the position that obtaining medical records was sufficient. The mother argued this was not enough. She set out six detailed steps the insurer failed to take in further drilling down beyond the medical records to get full answers. “While the Court agree[d] that not all the disputed facts identified by Plaintiff suggest bad faith, there is enough evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that Defendant failed to conduct a reasonable investigation into the factual circumstances underlying Plaintiff’s insurance claims.”

        3. Failure to comply with a Pennsylvania statute and regulation.

The mother also cited failure to comply with specific sections of the Unfair Insurance Practices Act and Unfair Claims Settlement Practices regulations in connection with the manner of rescission. Assuming arguendo these sections were applicable, the court found the insurer’s claim handling, in how it formally went about rescinding the policies, did not violate those sections.

Moreover, even assuming the UIPA and UCSP were violated, “a violation of the UIPA does not constitute per se bad faith under section 8371.” In this case, “the rescission letter’s language is not sufficient for a reasonable jury to find statutory bad faith, as the letter does not suggest unreasonable behavior on the part of Defendant and there is no evidence that Defendant knew of or recklessly disregarded any unreasonable behavior. At most, any violations of these provisions suggest that Defendant may have been negligent in the preparation of the rescission letter.”

        4.  No bad faith for alleged theory switching.

“Finally, Plaintiff argues that Defendant’s constantly changing bases for rescinding the Policies, as well as Defendant’s failure to reference gastroenteritis and lymphadenopathy in its affirmative defenses, are evidence of Defendant’s bad faith. The Court disagrees. There is no evidence that Defendant has constantly changed its basis for rescission—instead, Defendant has asserted since it sent the rescission letter that the rescission was based on misrepresentations about [the son’s] medical history in the applications. And the fact that the specific medical conditions that Defendant claims Plaintiff omitted have changed as the parties engaged in discovery, without more, is simply not evidence of bad faith.”

Thus, the motion was granted in part and denied in part.

Date of Decision: August 27, 2019

Horvath v. Globe Life & Accident Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Case No. 3:18-cv-84, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144933 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 27, 2019) (Gibson, J.)

PENNSYLVANIA SUPERIOR COURT FINDS NO BAD FAITH WHERE NO BREACH OF CONTRACT (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (Not Precedential)

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This UIM case involved two policies, a garage/auto policy and an umbrella policy. The crux of the issue was the insureds’ position that a UIM exclusion in the umbrella policy should not apply.

The same carrier issued both policies. After an accident in 2010, it paid $1 million under the garage policy, but nothing under the umbrella policy. (There is some discussion about the garage policy no longer providing UIM benefits at the time of the accident, though it appears the carrier did pay $1 million under this garage policy.)

The insured brought claims for negligence, fraud, breach of contract, bad faith and claims under the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law. The contract, bad faith, and UTPCPL claims were dismissed with prejudice on preliminary objections. Summary judgment was granted on the fraud claim, and the insured was non-suited on the negligence claim at trial.

The court found the umbrella policy’s UIM exclusion applied. As no coverage was due under the umbrella policy, there could be no bad faith in denying benefits under the policy. (There could be no UTPCPL claim because the policy was not issued to a consumer for personal, household or family use).

The court also addressed the insured’s claims of bad faith conduct during litigation. The alleged bad faith conduct during litigation consisted of the insurer filing a summary judgment motion to frighten the insured, making ethical claims against the insured’s counsel, acting in a dilatory manner by threatening a Dragonetti action, and slandering the insured’s counsel.

As stated above, the bad faith claims had been dismissed on preliminary objections, and the trial court never addressed these assertions. In upholding the trial court’s dismissal, the Superior Court noted that the summary judgment claim was partially successful, and that the trial court later dismissed all claims against the insurer.

Date of Decision: August 21, 2019

Lewis v. Erie Insurance Exchange, Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 2115 EDA 2018, 2019 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3209 (Pa. Super. Ct. Aug. 21, 2019) (Murray, Nichols, Shogan, JJ.)

NO BAD FAITH WHERE NO BENEFIT IS DENIED (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this property damage case, a policy endorsement placed defined limits on the scope of covered property damage. For example, the insured might have to pay for work covering 400 square feet to accomplish repairs needed to correct a problem, but the endorsement might only cover 200 square feet out of that 400. In this case, the insurer was only willing to pay for a portion of the insured’s overall repair costs, per the endorsement, but the insured wanted coverage for the entire amount. The insured brought breach of contract, bad faith, and unfair trade practices claims, and was now on his second amended complaint. The insurer moved to dismiss.

There is no breach of contract

Judge Kearney agreed that the insurer’s limited payment comported with the endorsement, and there was no breach of contract. He rejected the notion that the underlying policy could be kept in play, while striking off the endorsement on an unconscionability theory. Unconscionability is an affirmative defense and not a cause of action. Thus, the insured could not use this theory as a plaintiff. The court also rejected the insured’s reasonable expectations argument in refusing to rewrite the policy and strike the endorsement.

Although not pleaded in either the original complaint or two subsequent amendments, the insured argued against dismissal on the basis that a key word in the endorsement was ambiguous. Construing that ambiguity for the insured would purportedly allow for broader coverage. The court gave leave for another amendment, with the admonition to the insured and counsel that any amendment asserting this new position had to comply with Rule 11.

There is no actionable bad faith claim when there is no denial of a benefit

On the bad faith claim:

  1. The court could not infer the insurer lacked a reasonable basis to deny benefits, or acted with intent or reckless disregard in doing so. The insured himself alleged that benefits were not denied on the policy with the endorsement, only that the endorsement should be stripped from the policy, which would then allow additional benefits. As the court rejected that position, no benefits were denied under the policy as actually written.

The court noted that leave was given to replead the contract claim on the new ambiguity theory. Judge Kearney extended this possibility to re-pleading the bad faith on an ambiguity theory, if such a claim could be properly pleaded. He reminded the insured, however, that simply re-pleading the breach of contract on the basis of ambiguity “does not automatically equal statutory bad faith.”

  1. The court observed that “Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute does not extend to conduct unrelated to the denial of a claim for benefits.” To quote Judge Kearney at length:

Bad faith claims do not remedy an insurer’s allegedly insufficient performance of its contractual obligation or to indemnify losses. [citing Toy v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 593 Pa. 20, 928 A.2d 186, 198-200 (Pa. 2007).] Our Court of Appeals has affirmed “legislative intent. . . makes clear that the [bad faith] statute was intended specifically to cover the actions of insurance companies in the denial of benefits.” [citing Wise v. Am. Gen. Life Ins. Co., No. 02-3711, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4540, 2005 WL 670697 (E.D. Pa. Mar 22, 2005), aff’d, 459 F.3d 443 (3d Cir. 2006).] The General Assembly did not intend bad faith liability to extend to an insurer’s solicitation of customers or to regulate insurance policies generally. [Id.] For example, [the insured] argues [the insurer] acted in bad faith when it bargained with [the insured] for his insurance plan. We cannot recognize a bad faith claim for actions unrelated to the handling or denial of benefits. [The insured] also fails to plead a single fact evidencing delay or unreasonable treatment of his claim other than a disagreement over whether the Endorsement should govern. We cannot locate a fact suggesting a frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay the insurance proceeds. [The insured] does not plead a lack of good faith investigation into the facts or a failure to communicate. Instead, we must disregard conclusory allegations unsupported by facts, including the catch-all “acting unreasonably and unfairly.”

Finally, the court observed that any claim that the carrier interpreted an ambiguous policy term in bad faith would need many more facts than found in plaintiff’s current arguments.

Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) claim dismissed, and insured admonished as to nature of any future amendment

As to the putative deceptive conduct in including the endorsement, the court found that the complaint failed to allege intent or justifiable reliance. Thus, the catch-all UTPCPL deceptive practices claim failed, lacking these two necessary elements. Moreover, the alleged claim constitutes nonfeasance (failure to pay), rather than misfeasance, and thus fails on this additional ground.

While leave to amend remained on the table, the court admonished the insured that any new UTPCPL claim based on misfeasance would be scrutinized in light of existing judicial admissions indicating the claim is only one for nonfeasance.

Date of Decision: August 9, 2019

Boring v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-1833, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134242 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 9, 2019) (Kearney, J.)

 

NEW JERSEY FEDERAL COURT WOULD ALLOW PA BAD FAITH CLAIM TO PROCEED ON BASIS THAT INSURER KNEW ITS REPRESENTATIVE MISREPRESENTED THE POLICY’S SCOPE PRIOR TO POLICY BEING ISSUED (New Jersey Federal)

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In this case, the insured alleged that promises made in selling a disability policy differed from the terms of the policy itself, to the insured’s detriment. Although a New Jersey federal action, the case involved Pennsylvania law, including the Pennsylvania bad faith statute. The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith count, and well as claims for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing and fraud.

First, the court quickly dismissed the separate claim for breach of good faith and fair dealing as subsumed in the breach of contract claim.

As to the bad faith claim, the insured asserted in his brief the carrier was aware of prior misrepresentations by its sales representative about the scope of coverage. Therefore, the insurer could not in good faith enforce the terms of the policy that limited coverage more narrowly that the sales representative’s promises, which had induced the insured to purchase the policy.

The factual basis of these allegations was that the insurer had been sued before on the same basis, and the sales representative’s deposition had been taken where he admitted his conduct.

This was only included in the insured’s briefing on a motion to dismiss. The complaint itself made no reference to the prior suit or the deposition; nor did the insured plead that the carrier was aware of the sales representative’s misstatement before issuing the policy. Thus, this count was dismissed without prejudice, presumably to replead with these allegations included in an amended complaint.

[Note: There is case law indicating that pre-suit misrepresentations are addressed via Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, whereas statutory bad faith is based on post-policy conduct in the handling and disposition of claims made against the policy. An example can be found here.]

The court refused to dismiss a separate fraud count on the gist of the action theory, finding that the fraudulent inducement preceded the contract; however, again, the facts were not adequately set forth and dismissal was without prejudice.

Date of Decision: August 8, 2019

Javie v. Mass. Cas. Ins. Co., U. S. District Court District of New Jersey Civil Action No. 18-2748, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133123 (D.N.J. Aug. 8, 2019) (Vazguez, J.)