Archive for the 'PA – Discovery and Evidence' Category

INSURER PUT ON UNREBUTTED EVIDENCE THAT ITS CLAIM DENIAL WAS REASONABLE (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this case, the insurer moved for summary judgment on bad faith, and the insured did not respond to the motion. After a review of the record and legal arguments, the Court granted the insurer’s motion.

The case involved a personal injury. The insurer had an independent medical review performed on the insured’s medical records. The carrier’s doctor concluded that the injuries the insured alleged were not the result of the accident at issue. Rather, those injuries were caused by a prior accident. The carrier argued this alone was sufficient to establish a reasonable basis to deny coverage.

As stated, the insured did not respond to the carrier’s motion, and thus put forward no evidence that the insurer acted in bad faith by failing to consider the relevant medical records. Judge Brody agreed:

“After reviewing [the] motion and evidence, I conclude that [the insurer] has satisfied its summary-judgment burden, shifting the burden to Plaintiff to demonstrate the existence of genuine disputes of material fact that preclude summary judgment. Plaintiff has failed to carry his burden. Despite several chances to do so, Plaintiff never filed any objection to [the] Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. He has not pointed to any evidence that [the insurer] behaved in bad faith, nor has he offered any evidence to refute the evidence [the insurer] offered in support of its motion.”

Date of Decision: August 13, 2020

Dwyer v. Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-2814, 2020 WL 4699047 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 13, 2020) (Brody, J.)

Institutional Discovery in Breach of Contract and Bad Faith Case (Lackawanna Common Pleas)

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The excellent Tort Talk Blog posted a Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County case summary today, addressing institutional discovery in a breach of contract/bad faith case.

BAD FAITH CLAIM CAN PROCEED EVEN THOUGHT CONTRACT CLAIM DISMISSED AS UNTIMELY; ADJUSTOR AND INVESTIGATOR NOT SUBJECT TO BAD FAITH STATUTE (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involved breach of contract and bad faith claims against the insurer based on its decision not to cover the alleged theft of jewelry. The insurer engaged an investigation firm to look into the theft. The individual investigator assigned to the claim raised questions about either the ownership of the jewelry, or whether it was actually stolen in a burglary.

The insurer was granted judgment on the pleadings as to the breach of insurance contract claim. The policy had a one-year limitations period for brining suit, and the insured failed to file her action within one year.

Even though there was no coverage due because of the contractual limitations period, however, the court denied summary judgment on the bad faith claim. The insurer argued that the insured’s “deposition testimony shows that she cannot meet her burden of establishing bad faith.” The court found this argument premature.

The case had been removed to federal court and immediately placed in the arbitration track. There were no formal discovery requests from any party. The court found that the “litigation that has ensued does not preclude full and fair discovery on fact-driven claims that remain on the bad-faith count.” Thus, summary judgment was premature, and the motion was dismissed without prejudice. Judge Rufe added a requirement that the parties had to report jointly regarding to the court on what discovery was being pursued, if any, heading into the arbitration.

[Note: The insurer apparently did not attempt to argue that if the contract claim was dismissed, then the bad faith claim necessarily failed. There is some case law holding if the contract claim is dismissed on the basis of a contractual limitations period, the bad faith claim can still proceed. See, e.g., Doylestown Electrical Supply Co. v. Maryland Casualty Ins. Co., 942 F. Supp. 1018 (E.D. Pa. 1996) and March v. Paradise Mutual Ins. Co., 646 A.2d 1254 (Pa. Super. 1994), appeal denied, 540 Pa. 613, 656 A.2d 118 (1995).]

Finally, the insured attempted to amend the complaint to add claims against the insurer’s claim adjustor, the company it hired to investigate the claim and the individual investigator. The court found these claims meritless and would not allow amendment.

An individual adjustor working for an insurer is not an insurer. Thus, the individual adjustor was not subject to (i) a breach of contract claim because he was not a party to the contract; or (ii) the bad faith claim because Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute only applies to insurers. The same reasoning applied to the investigators.

Date of Decision: April 30, 2020

Holden v. Homesite Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-2167, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75904 (E.D. Pa. April 30, 2020) (Rufe, J.)

 

UIM JURY VERDICT NOT RELEVANT TO BAD FAITH CASE BECAUSE IT OCCURRED AFTER THE INSURER HAD COMPLETED ITS CLAIM EVALUATION (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this UIM bad faith case, the insureds demanded UIM policy limits which the insurer did not pay. The insureds took their case to trial, and the jury verdict far exceeded policy limits. The insureds pursued a claim for bad faith, arguing among other things that the jury verdict could be used as evidence of bad faith.

The court disagreed. Bad faith can only be determined based on the insurer’s conduct in evaluating the claim when it was submitted and on “the information available to the insurer during the claims processing”. The jury verdict was rendered after the insurer had done its claim evaluation. Thus, the jury verdict was not relevant to bad faith.

The central legal issue in the case was whether the insureds had executed some version of an enforceable UIM policy limit sign down, below their liability coverage. The court’s detailed analysis revealed that the insured’s application, which would otherwise have effected an enforceable sign down, was ineffective because it made that decision contingent on another required form that was only signed over one month later. The accident at issue occurred during the interim. The court found that there was no effective sign down, and the UIM limits defaulted to the liability limits, a difference between $300,000 and $750,000.

The insureds claimed that asking them to sign the second document constituted bad faith. The insurer consistently took the position that the second document was not necessary to succeed on the sign down argument; rather, the application controlled and the second document was basically redundant.

Magistrate Judge Rice disagreed with the carrier’s position on the application as stated above, but still found no bad faith:

“Nor does the failure to have [the insured] sign the UIM coverage selection form until [one month after the application] constitute bad faith. [The insurer] consistently maintained that the … application established the UIM policy limit, and the [insureds] had access to all relevant documents at all times. My post-trial disagreement with that determination fails to establish … bad faith.”

Date of Decision: February 18, 2020

Gibson v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 18-4919, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27531 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 18, 2020) (Rice, M.J.)

INSURER’S RELIANCE ON ADVICE OF COUNSEL, AMONG MANY OTHER FACTORS FAVORING THE INSURER, DEFEATS BAD FAITH CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involves a head-spinning array of factual discrepancies between the insured’s claims to the carrier and the results of the insurer’s investigation. These range from whether the insured actually owned the property to whether the structure at issue collapsed from a sudden event or collapsed because of (uncovered) faulty construction. We leave you to the court’s lengthy and detailed narrative concerning these discrepancies, and the various coverage issues invoked by their presence. Of particular interest here is that in addition to involving an adjuster, SIU adjuster, supervisor and engineering expert, the insurer also puts its outside counsel’s coverage opinion on the record.  

The insured brought a bad faith claim, and the insurer moved for summary judgment after making a detailed record.  The insurer asserted various bases for why it was entitled to summary judgment. In granting summary judgment, the court stated that, at a minimum, there was a reasonable basis to deny coverage:

“The record indicates that [the insurer] conducted a thorough investigation of the claim and ultimately decided that coverage should be denied. Indeed, [a] property adjuster and an SIU adjuster inspected Plaintiff’s loss; the claim was reviewed by [a] supervisor; [the insurer] took the recorded statement of Plaintiff and reviewed relevant property documentation from the City of Philadelphia; [the insurer] obtained the services of a structural engineer; and [the insurer] then sent the structural engineer’s report, which opined on the cause of the loss, to independent legal counsel for an opinion on the coverage. Finally, relying upon independent legal counsel’s conclusion that coverage did not exist for Plaintiff’s loss, [the insurer] denied Plaintiff’s insurance claim. It cannot be said that [the insurer]’s investigation and decision-making process was ‘frivolous or unfounded,’ as required under Pennsylvania law to succeed on a bad faith claim.”

The court added, “the factual record is devoid of any ‘clear, direct, weighty and convincing’ evidence that would allow a factfinder to find ‘without hesitation’ that [the insurer] acted in bad faith in investigating and ultimately denying Plaintiff’s insurance claim.”

Moreover, even if the insured could make a case for unreasonableness, “the record is devoid of any evidence that [the insurer] either knew it had an unreasonable basis for denying coverage or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis in denying Plaintiff’s claim or in the manner in which it investigated Plaintiff’s claimed loss.” The record shows the contrary. The insurer not only engaged a structural engineer, but also independent legal counsel to analyze coverage. It then “relied on the independent findings of both the expert and legal counsel in its ultimate decision to deny” the claim.

Date of Decision: February 14, 2020

Nguyen v. Allstate Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 18-5019, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25789 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 14, 2020) (Kenney, J.)

 

INSURED SETS OUT BAD FAITH DELAY CLAIM, AS WELL AS CLAIM FOR ATTORNEY’S FEES (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM case involved a claim for full policy limits, amounting to $45,000. The insured alleged serious permanent injuries.

Over two years passed from the time the insured gave notice until the time of suit, with the claim neither paid nor denied. The insured filed suit for declaratory judgment, breach of contract, and bad faith. The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim and attorney’s fee claim, and the court denied the motion.

Bad Faith Claim Based on Delay Adequately Pleaded

The court recognized at least two sources of statutory bad faith: (1) failure to pay and (2) delay in making payment. As to the first, “[w]here a claim of bad faith is based on a refusal to pay benefits under a policy, ‘the plaintiff must show that the defendant did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy and that defendant knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying the claim.’” As to the second, “[t]o sufficiently plead bad faith by way of delay, ‘a plaintiff must allege that a defendant had no reasonable basis for the delay in coverage, and that the defendant delayed coverage with knowing or reckless disregard for the unreasonableness of its action.’”

The court found bad faith delay pleaded, based on the following factual allegations:

  1. The insurer “was put on notice of [the] underinsured motorist benefits claim in March 2017.”

  2. “In January 2018, [the insurer] waived its subrogation rights and consented to … settlement with the third-party insurance carrier.”

  3. “On March 30, 2018, [the insurer] advised [the insured] that her claim for underinsured motorist benefits was being evaluated.”

  4. “From April to July 2018, the parties communicated regarding scheduling an EUO, which took place on July 9, 2018.” As pleaded, it was the insurer that sought an EUO in July, and the insured asked to move it up.

  5. “On July 26, 2018, [the insurer] advised [the insured] that it would likely require her to undergo an IME, however, [the insurer] never moved forward with the IME.”

  6. “Between August 2018 and February 2019, [the insured] provided medical records to [the insurer], both unsolicited and at their request.”

  7. “Between February and June 2019, [the insurer] did not notify [the insured] as to the status of her claim, and at the time of the filing of the instant Complaint in September 2019, [the insurer] had neither paid [the] claim, nor denied it.”

The court summarized how these factual allegations made out a bad faith claim. The insured repeatedly tried to have her claim evaluated. She complied with requests for information, provided unsolicited information, and inquired as to the claim status. However, “despite having over two years to conduct its investigation, [the insurer] has unreasonably and without justification failed to approve or deny her claim.” Based on these factual allegations, there appears no reasonable basis to delay the claim evaluation, which the court equated with a failure to evaluate. The knowing/reckless bad faith element was met because the insured had given notice to the insurer through her inquiries and providing information that the claim had not been paid or rejected.

The court cited the Ridolfi, Kelly, and Smerdon cases concerning a delay-based bad faith analysis.

Clear and Convincing Evidence Standard Held Irrelevant at Pleading Stage

The court rejected the argument that the factual pleadings had to be measured against the clear and convincing evidence standard at the motion to dismiss stage. The court stated this standard is relevant, e.g., to trial, but not at the pleading stage. Rather, pleadings are governed by the plausibility standard. Thus, the insured “need not ‘establish’ anything at this early point in the proceedings, let alone ‘by clear and convincing evidence.’” “Whether sufficient facts will be discovered for [the insured] to survive a motion for summary judgment is unknown and may be addressed at a later date.”

Attorney’s Fees Possible under Bad Faith Statute or MVFRL

Finally, the court refused to dismiss the attorney’s fee claim based on both the bad faith statute, and the possibility that attorney’s fees might be permitted under section 1716 of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law.

Date of Decision: January 24, 2020

Solano-Sanchez v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. No. 5:19-cv-04016, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11784 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 24, 2020) (Leeson, Jr., J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM CAN PROCEED TO TRIAL WHERE RECORD SHOWED A POTENTIAL BASIS FOR COVERAGE, EVEN THOUGH INSURER BELIEVED THAT BASIS WAS ONLY PUT FORWARD IN AN ATTEMPT TO EVADE A WAIVER (Middle District)

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In this bad faith case, one type of injury was specifically not covered under a disability policy, pursuant to a waiver, but other forms of injury might be covered. The insurer denied the claim on the basis that the uncovered injury was the only injury that could have caused the disability at issue. The insured two types of injury were at issue, and brought breach of contract and bad faith claims.

The insured moved for summary judgment on the bad faith claim.

Middle District Judge James Munley found the record showed evidence of both uncovered and covered injuries. The insurer argued that the covered injury type was merely put forward as a make weight to avoid the true, uncovered, injury being the only basis for the disability claim.

As this was a summary judgment motion, the court could not disregard record evidence of either injury. Taking the evidence in the non-movant’s favor, the court found that (1) because the insurer reviewed the record before denying coverage and (2) the record included a covered claim as well as an uncovered claim, then (3) “these facts may show that [the insurer] knew it lacked a reasonable basis for denying the plaintiff’s disability insurance claim, or it recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis for doing so.”

“Therefore, plaintiff has sufficient evidence, which if credited by the jury, would support his bad faith claim making summary judgment for the defendant inappropriate here.”

Date of Decision: January 13, 2020

Dileo v. Federated Life Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:18cv628, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5003 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 13, 2020) (Munley, J.)

THERE IS NO CAUSE OF ACTION FOR “INSTITUTIONAL BAD FAITH” (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (Non-Precedential)

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In this unpublished opinion, Pennsylvania’s Superior Court addressed whether “institutional bad faith” states a private cause of action under Pennsylvania law. Much like yesterday’s post, the Superior Court emphasized that Pennsylvania bad faith law requires focusing on the case and parties at hand, and not the insurer’s conduct toward other parties or its alleged universal practices. The court also addressed other issues concerning statutory bad faith and Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL), among other matters. In this post, we only address all the bad faith and  UTPCPL claims against the insurer.

Factual Background and Trial Court Rulings

The case begins with a home remodeler’s attempt to destroy a bee’s nest in one small section of a house. This unfortunate effort only caused larger problems, contaminating and damaging the house. The chain of misfortune continued when remediation efforts led to more damage, with the home allegedly becoming uninhabitable. At a minimum, all sides agreed some level of reconstruction work was now needed.

The homeowners’ insurer engaged a contractor to fix the original problem. The homeowners eventually challenged the quality of that contractor’s work, which they contended added to the damage. They eventually refused to allow that contractor on site, and unilaterally hired a second contractor to take over. Both the insured and insurer retained their own engineers, who disagreed on the scope of the damage and reconstruction work required.

The second contractor was owned by the insured husband’s parents. The husband himself was the second company’s project manager on the job. The trial court stated that the husband agreed with the position that he “negotiated an oral contract on behalf of … himself and his wife… with himself, as project manager of and on behalf of [the second contractor]” for the reconstruction work. The insurer and first contractor disputed the necessity and cost of the work carried out by the second contractor, as well as other costs.

The trial court ruled for the insurer on breach of warranty, emotional distress, UTPCPL, and bad faith claims, but in favor of the insureds on their breach of contract claim.

There is no Cause of Action in Pennsylvania for Institutional Bad Faith

The insureds argued that institutional bad faith could be the basis for asserting statutory bad faith. Under this theory, a claim can be based solely on an insurer’s policies, practices, and procedures as applied universally to all insureds. The present plaintiffs wanted to introduce evidence to support such institutionalized bad faith conduct. Both the trial and appellate courts rejected this theory.

The Superior Court emphasized that a bad faith action is limited to “the company’s conduct toward the insured asserting the claim.” Thus, “’bad faith claims are fact specific and depend on the conduct of the insurer vis-à-vis the insured.’” The Superior Court agreed with the trial court “that there is no separate cause of action of institutional bad faith.” It stated, that the bad faith statute “authorizes specified actions by the trial court ‘if the court finds that the insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured . . . ,’ not to the world at large.” (Court’s emphasis).

The Insurer did not Act in Bad Faith

  1. The policy and procedure manual/guideline arguments failed on the merits.

The Superior Court ruled that the trial court’s findings did not result in a refusal to consider evidence relating to the insurer’s conduct and practices. In fact, the insurer’s manuals, guidelines, and procedures were admitted as evidence, all of which were considered by the trial court. This evidence, however, was not considered as part of an institutional bad faith case. Rather, it was only relevant to determining if the insurer acted in bad faith toward the specific plaintiff-insureds, and not to the universe of all insureds.

In deciding the bad faith issue, when the trial court was presented with evidence of the insurer’s policies and procedures, it “did not find them to be improper when applied to the [insureds’] claim, although not a separate claim concerning ‘institutional bad faith.’” (Court’s emphasis) Thus, the actual plaintiffs could not make out a case for themselves on this evidence because they “failed to establish a nexus between [the insurer’s] business policies and the specific claims … asserted in support of bad faith.”

  1. The insureds could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard.

The trial court found the insurer had not acted in bad faith on other facts of record, and the Superior Court found no abuse of discretion in this ruling. Both courts emphasized the insured’s burden of proof is clear and convincing evidence. Thus, the trial court stated, “[i]cannot be reasonably said, given the facts and evidence adduced at trial, that [the insurer] lacked a reasonable basis for denying benefits and/or that [it] knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits…. Mere negligence or bad judgment in failing to pay a claim does not constitute bad faith. An insurer may always aggressively investigate and protect its interests. Particularly in light of the higher burden of proof, specifically the requirement that [insureds] must prove a bad faith claim by ‘clear and convincing’ evidence, the record in this case does not support the assertion of statutory bad faith….”

Specifically, the court focused on alleged (i) failures to pay engineering fees, (ii) delays in hiring engineers, (iii) unduly restricting the engineer’s ability to opine, and (iv) instructions that the first contractor and its engineer disregard building codes.

The insurer adduced evidence that (i) it paid engineering fees, (ii) its original decision not to hire an engineer was done based on information provided by the first contractor and a building code officer, (iii) it did agree to hire an engineer once the insureds provided their list of concerns, and (iv) the engineer opined the home was not uninhabitable. The insurer also put on evidence that its adjuster never told the first contractor to ignore the building code, but rather expected the contractor to comply with existing code requirements.

On these facts, the Superior Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding the insureds failed to meet the clear and convincing evidence standard.

The UTPCPL does not Apply to Claim Handling

Both the trial court and Superior Court concluded that the UTPCPL does not apply to insurer claim handling cases.

Date of Decision: January 14, 2020

Wenk v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 1284 WDA 2018, No. 1287 WDA 2018, No. 1288 WDA 2018, 2020 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 178 (Pa. Super. Ct. Jan. 14, 2020) (Lazarus, Olson, Shogan, JJ.) (non-precedential)

The January 14, 2020 decision was not a final disposition, and a subsequent opinion was filed on February 7, 2020, attached here, which appears to be identical to the January 14, 2020 opinion.

Our thanks to Daniel Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk blog for brining this case to our attention.

THIRD CIRCUIT FINDS: (1) EXPERT PROPERLY EXCLUDED FROM TESTIFYING ABOUT OTHER CASES; (2) REPORT NEVER PROVIDED TO INSURER DURING CLAIM HANDLING CANNOT BE CONSIDERED DURING BAD FAITH CASE; (3) INSURED WAS FULLY ABLE TO PRESENT CLAIM HANDLING EVIDENCE THROUGH HERSELF AND ADJUSTER; (4) USING HAND GESTURES IN JURY INSTRUCTION ON CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE NOT AN ERROR (Third Circuit – Pennsylvania Law)

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This is a post-verdict appeal after the jury found for the insurer in a UIM bad faith case. The insured challenged various pre-trial evidentiary rulings from the District Court Judge, and one of the judge’s jury instructions.

Before trial, the insurer moved to preclude plaintiff’s expert report and testimony, medical evidence that was not provided to the insurer during the UIM claim’s pendency, evidence of mental suffering and emotional distress, and evidence concerning non-recoverable damages. The insured also challenged the trial judge’s use of hand gestures during jury instructions to explain the clear and convincing evidence standard.

  1. Decision to Exclude Expert Upheld

The Third Circuit agreed there was no abuse of discretion by the trial judge in not holding a Daubert hearing. There was a sufficient record on the papers, making a hearing unnecessary. Further, the insured failed to explain how a hearing would have benefitted her or the court.

Next, the appellate court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision barring the expert’s testimony. Plaintiff wanted her expert to testify “for the very limited purpose of establishing a range of value for [her] underlying UIM claim.” However, this involved looking at other cases not before the court. The District Judge found that “’what other cases have paid is not relevant to this case, [and] what the value of this case is’ and [] the jury ‘will be instructed to use their common sense’ in compensating [the insured] should she prevail.”

The Third Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the District Court’s determination that the proposed expert testimony would not aid the jury, which had to rely on the facts in the case before it to determine bad faith.

  1. Medical Report Never Given to Insurer During Claim Handling Inadmissible

The insured wanted to introduce a medical report as evidence, addressing the extent of her injury and damages. However, she never provided that report to the insurer during the claim process. The Third Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the District Court excluding this evidence. “Because [the insurer] was not in possession of the report when it was evaluating [the] claim, it could not have considered the report’s findings when making its settlement offers. Therefore, the report had no relevance to the issue of whether [the insurer] acted in bad faith. Accordingly, we see no abuse of discretion in the District Court’s decision to exclude the report.”

  1. The Insured was Able to Present the Value of Her Case through Her Own Testimony and that of the Claim Adjuster

The insured argued the trial judge’s rulings prevented her from putting on a full case from which the jury could evaluate her claim. The Third Circuit found no abuse of discretion. Rather, the insured was able to put on her case directly through her own testimony, and to examine the claim adjuster at length on the relevant issues as to how the adjuster evaluated the claim.

  1. The District Judge’s Use of Hand Gestures to Explain the Clear and Convincing Evidence Standard was not an Error

The insured challenged the jury charge on the applicable burden of proof because the judge used “hand gestures demonstrating [the insured’s] burden in the ‘clear and convincing’ standard as a point midway between proof by preponderance of the evidence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Third Circuit found no plain error here that would merit relief for the insured.

“The District Court instructed the jury that clear and convincing evidence ‘means that the evidence is so clear, direct, substantial that you are convinced without hesitation that a fact is true.’ Language used by the District Court was substantially similar to language we have previously approved of. While [the insured] takes issue with the District Court’s use of ‘hand gestures’ during the jury charge, there is no reason to believe that those ‘hand gestures’ confused or in any way distracted the jury from the District Court’s correct instruction on clear and convincing evidence. Therefore, we find no error, much less plain error.”

In sum, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decisions.

Date of Decision: January 8, 2020

Antonio v. Progressive Insurance Co., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 19-1074, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 455 (3d Cir. Jan. 8, 2020) (Fuentes, Scirica, Shwartz, JJ.)

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.)