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WESTERN DISTRICT JUDGE STICKMAN ISSUES TWO BAD FAITH OPINIONS: (1) DIFFERENCE IN VALUATION ALONE IS NOT BAD FAITH; (2) BAD FAITH CANNOT BE PURSUED AGAINST CARRIER’S CLAIM ADJUSTER (Western District)

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On July 19th, Judge Stickman held in Stegena v. Nationwide, that simply pleading the insured’s injuries are worth significantly more than the carrier’s valuation of the same injuries cannot, by itself, constitute bad faith.  One week later, Judge Stickman opined in the Alexander v. Mid-Century, that an insured could not bring breach of contract or bad faith claims against a carrier’s claim adjuster.

Valuation dispute alone cannot constitute bad faith

In this undersinsured motorist breach of contract and bad faith case, the insured’s “argument in support of her statutory bad faith claim consists almost entirely of nothing more than a bare recitation of the materials and evidence submitted in support of her claim, together with monetary valuations included in the opinions of experts procured after the initiation of this litigation….”

Judge Stickman found the complaint alleged a claim handling history that did not make out a plausible bad faith claim, with the insured trying to meet her clear and convincing evidence burden by simply emphasizing the amount of damages her experts found due to compensate her damages, which the carrier would not pay. Judge Stickman states: “The problem with [the insured’s] argument is that, although she provides sizeable dollar amounts, which her experts claim represent prospective lost wages and medical expenses, her argument fails to address the present issues before the Court—why there was an absence of a reasonable basis, or how [the insurer] knew or recklessly disregarded that absence.”

He recognizes that “under the right circumstances, an unsupported low-ball offer may support a claim for insurance bad faith … [but] it remains [the insured’s] burden to scrutinize the relationship between [the insurer’s] considerations and determinations.” Here, the insured’s failure to “identify, with any specificity, factual deficiencies illustrating the unreasonableness of [the insurer’s] conduct, demonstrates that her claim is more properly characterized as an inappropriate, generalized grievance over the monetary valuation of her claim.” Moreover, the record showed the carrier’s “investigation and determinations, and, more specifically, the process that he used to evaluate and value the claim … cannot be characterized as anything other than reasonable, as that term applies in the bad faith context.”

Judge Stickman cites Judge Caputo’s 2019 Moran decision in support, summarized here, where the Middle District court collected cases on valuation discrepancies and bad faith.

Finally, in reciting case law detailing Pennsylvania’s statutory bad faith standards, we observe that Judge Stickman quoted the long-standing principle that “an insurance company is not required to demonstrate its investigation yielded the correct conclusion or even that its conclusion more likely than not was accurate. The insurance company also is not required to show the process by which it reached its conclusion was flawless or that the investigatory methods it employed eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusion. Rather, an insurance company simply must show it conducted a review or investigation sufficiently thorough to yield a reasonable foundation for its action.”

Date of Decision:  July 19, 2021

Stegena v. Nationwide Property & Casualty Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-428, 2021 WL 3038800 (W.D. Pa. July 19, 2021) (Stickman, J.)

No viable breach of contract or bad faith claim against individual adjuster

The insured brought  breach of contract and bad faith claims against both his insurer and its claim adjuster.  The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing there was no viable claim against the adjuster, and that the adjuster was joined to improperly destroy diversity jurisdiction and prevent removal to federal court.

Judge Stickman found Pennsylvania case law made clear that neither a breach of insurance contract or insurance bad faith claim could be pursued against an individual claim adjuster working for the insured’s carrier.  He cites the 2017 Pennsylvania Superior Court decision in Brown v. Everett, summarized here, holding that “a statutory action for bad faith can only be brought against the insurer,” and not an adjuster.

Judge Stickman rejected the argument that the adjuster could be sued under the “participation theory,” finding that theory inapposite to the context of an insurance adjuster handling a claim for an insurance company.  Thus, he dismissed the claims against the adjuster with prejudice, which further resulted in jurisdiction over the remaining claims against the insurer being proper in federal court.

Date of Decision:  July 26, 2021

Alexander v. Mid-Century Insurance Company, No. 2:21-CV-392, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania 2021 WL 3173621 (W.D. Pa. July 26, 2021) (Stickman, J.)

DEFENSE VERDICT FOR INSURER AFFIRMED; NO BAD FAITH BASED ON ALLEGED LOW-BALL OFFERS OR CLAIM HANDLING (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (Non-precedential)

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This fact-driver UIM bad faith case resulted in a non-jury verdict for the insurer.  Pennsylvania’s Superior Court affirmed.

[This is the second non-precedential Superior Court opinion reviewing bad faith verdicts that we’ve summarized in last three weeks, demonstrating the increasing role these non-precedential appellate decisions may come to play in briefing bad faith issues.  Per Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 126(b), such decisions issued after May 19, 2019 can be cited for their persuasive authority.  This decision is also noteworthy in reiterating that it is not the court’s job on appeal to flesh out arguments or find support in the record that is not adduced by a party in its briefing.]

Factual and procedural background

Plaintiff was injured as a bus passenger, when another vehicle hit the bus.  The plaintiff’s symptoms and treatment concluded six months after the collision.

The tortfeasor only had $15,000 in coverage, and plaintiff sought UIM benefits under his brother’s policy. Plaintiff did not seek this UIM coverage, however, until 19 months after the collision.

The brother’s carrier began its investigation the same month the claim was reported. Both brothers were interviewed and provided evidence that would lead to there being no coverage, but plaintiff provided other evidence favoring coverage. After two months, the insurer completed its investigation, and concluded it would provide UIM coverage.

Shortly after, the insured provided a document package. The carrier evaluated the information and soon offered $5,000, additionally telling plaintiff’s counsel the insurer needed proof that plaintiff’s work loss was due to the collision and not any other causes. Instead of replying, 17 days later plaintiff filed his bad faith suit.

The complaint alleged bad faith based only on “low ball offers and the investigation as being excessively long….” No loss of consortium claim was ever pleaded, though it was mentioned in some correspondence between counsel.

The arbitration award and the arbitrator’s doubts

The underlying claim went to binding arbitration, while the bad faith claim was pursued in court.  Before the arbitration hearing, the insurer offered $12,500, and then $30,000, to settle. Plaintiff never lowered his demand below the $100,000 policy limit.  The arbitrator’s award “was not far above the final offer of $30,000.00.”

Although the arbitrator awarded money damages, he expressed doubts about plaintiff’s case.  He observed the contradiction between plaintiff’s telling medical personnel in October 2013 that his medical issues had resolved, while later claiming they did not resolve but continued to get worse.  The arbitrator also expressed concern over apparent conflicts between the plaintiff’s claim he could not, and did not, work, compared to the actual work and medical history. Among other things, the arbitrator recited details as to the funds plaintiff alleged he and his wife lived on for years, and how it appeared highly unlikely they could actually have survived on this amount without plaintiff himself having also worked (despite his assertions that he could not work).

In later reviewing the arbitration award for loss of consortium, the court expressed concerned that while the arbitrator observed the complaint failed to actually include any claim for loss of consortium, he still awarded $15,000 in loss of consortium damages. The arbitrator did so because the wife’s name was in the caption and the policy provided for loss of consortium damages.

The Superior Court was also concerned that the arbitrator never explained the basis for its other damage awards. “While the arbitrator awarded [plaintiff] $21,905.00 for lost wages and $35,000 for pain and suffering, this Court is again unable to determine the bases for these figures.”

The trial court’s verdict and reasoning, and Superior Court’s affirmance

The trial court ruled against plaintiffs on the merits.  First, the passenger’s wife claimed bad faith for the carrier failing to pay on the loss of consortium claim. But the trial court only learned of this loss of consortium claim the day of trial, and it refused to consider that belated claim. The Superior Court ultimately found this issue waived on appeal.

As to the bad faith claims for delays in the investigation and low ball offers, the trial court observed that plaintiff and his wife did not even appear at trial to support their claims. Rather they relied on witnesses associated with the insured to focus on the allegedly improper claims handling, and apparently an expert witness (whose testimony or report was not persuasive to the trial court judge). The trial court found plaintiff failed to meet his burden by putting on clear and convincing evidence of bad faith.

The Superior Court affirmed.

The “low ball” offer claim fails

In addressing the “low ball offer” bad faith claim, the court contrasted the instant facts with those in the seminal Boneberger case.  In Boneberger, the trial court found the insurer’s witnesses lacked credibility, did not conduct at IME when challenging medical records, actively promoted unethical claim handling practices, and that the insureds only brought suit after long negotiations and an arbitration award. In the present case, there were no similar credibility rulings against the insurer, there was an IME, and there was no finding the carrier promoted an unethical philosophy. Further, instead of allowing the investigation to develop, the bad faith suit was filed in short order, without any prolonged negotiations and before the arbitration award.

The Superior Court also rejected the argument that the arbitration award was evidence of bad faith “low ball” offers. As the court observed, the arbitrator did not find plaintiff and his wife credible, found their medical and wage evidence unreliable, and failed to explain sufficiently the basis for his damage awards. “The fact that the arbitrator awarded damages which were less than those sought … but more than what [was] offered does not support a finding that [the insurer] acted in bad faith.”

The claim handling argument fails

The court then rejected the argument for bad faith in evaluating the information plaintiff provided to the insurer. In rejecting this argument, the court not only found it “scattershot, unsupported by legal authority and undeveloped[,]” but made clear what courts will not do in reviewing cases on appeal.

The Superior Court will not play the role of advocate

  1. “Arguments not appropriately developed include those where the party has failed to cite any authority in support of a contention. This Court will not act as counsel and will not develop arguments on behalf of an appellant. Moreover, we observe that the Commonwealth Court, our sister appellate court, has aptly noted that [m]ere issue spotting without analysis or legal citation to support an assertion precludes our appellate review of [a] matter.”

  2. “While the [insureds] complain that [the insurer] failed to properly evaluate certain medical and wage evidence they provided, they do not specify the evidence, explain its relevance, or state where it is in the record. … The certified record, including transcripts, is nearly 6000 pages. While we have undertaken careful review, it is not our responsibility to comb through the record seeking the factual underpinnings of a claim. Commonwealth v. Mulholland, 702 A.2d 1027, 1034 n.5 (Pa. Super. 1997) (‘In a record containing thousands of pages, this court will not search every page to substantiate a party’s incomplete argument’).”

Superior Court would not reverse trial court credibility determination on expert

The Superior Court also ruled plaintiff had waived the argument that the trial court failed to properly consider expert testimony, while still observing that the “trial court, as the finder of fact, is free to believe all, part or none of the evidence presented. Issues of credibility and conflicts in evidence are for the trial court to resolve; this Court is not permitted to reexamine the weight and credibility determination or substitute our judgment for that of the fact finder.”

Date of Decision:  February 26, 2021

Gavasto v. 21st Century Indem. Ins. Co., Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 1625 WDA 2019, 2021 WL 754026 (Pa. Super. Ct. Feb. 26, 2021) (McCaffery, Murray, Olson, JJ.)

SUPERIOR COURT AFFIRMS TRIAL COURT’S BAD FAITH VERDICT, AND ITS REFUSAL TO AWARD PUNITIVE DAMAGES (Superior Court of Pennsylvania) (Non-precedential)

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After a non-jury trial, the Blair County Court of Common Pleas found the insurer violated the bad faith statute, and awarded statutory damages in the form of attorneys’ fees and super-interest. It declined, however, to award punitive damages under the statute.  The insurer appealed the bad faith verdict, and the insured appealed the decision not to award punitive damages.  The Superior Court rejected both appeals and affirmed the lower court.

Facts

This is another UIM bad faith case.

The accident occurred in 2000, and the driver’s carrier agreed with the insured that the other driver was 100% liable, and paid its full $100,000 UIM limits to the insured.  The tortfeasor’s carrier paid $50,000.

Over two years later, the insured sought UIM coverage from her mother’s carrier, the defendant insurer in this action. The defendant was affiliated with the driver’s own insurer, and had access to its investigation files.  Its UIM limit was $600,000. It valued the claim at $200,000 and offered $50,000 to settle the claim ($150,000 already having been paid by the tortfeasor’s carrier and the first UIM insurer).

The insured rejected the offer, and initiated a bad faith action in 2003, which it held in abeyance while the UIM case was pending. The insurer paid the undisputed $50,000.

Later in 2003, the insured received a PTSD diagnosis and send additional medical records to the insurer.  The insurer received the medical records, but denied having received them. The defendant insurer took the position that the diagnosis was unrelated to the 2000 accident, and its $200,000 remain unchanged, having failed to receive any medical records (which it in fact had received, however). It then initiated the UIM arbitration process in 2004.

The defendant carrier informed its arbitration defense counsel the other driver was 100% at fault.  Months later the carrier’s counsel said he had spoken to the other driver, based on that interview the accident could have been the insured’s fault, and the arbitrator might rule for the carrier on the UIM claim.  The attorney’s opinion was based solely on the other driver’s rendition of the facts, and not any expert report or investigation other than interviewing the other driver.  The carrier itself did not obtain a reconstruction expert report on the accident.

The carrier, however, was sufficiently persuaded. It took the position in late 2004 that the insured might have comparative negligence up to 50%, but not more. By early 2005, however, the carrier took the position that the accident was 100% the insured’s fault.

The carrier delayed the arbitration by filing a declaratory judgment action seeking to limit the range of damages the arbitrator could award. This case was dismissed on preliminary objections. The carrier further delayed the arbitration by seeking evidence of the insured’s post-accident motor vehicle record, fall-downs, alcoholism and depression.

Eight years later, in 2013, the case finally went to arbitration, i.e., over 13 years after the accident and 8-9 years after the UIM arbitration process began. The arbitrator valued the insured’s injuries at $599,000, and awarded her $399,000. The arbitrator found no comparative negligence. [This was the same position the carrier had taken before late 2004.]

Arguments at trial

The bad faith case went to a non-jury trial in 2018, with a claim handler and the insurer’s UIM arbitration counsel as the sole witnesses.

The insured argued the carrier acted in bad faith when changing its position on the drivers’ comparative negligence, based solely on defense counsel’s interview of the other driver. The insured asserted that the carrier should have known the other driver was not credible, and should not have relied on his rendition of the facts to change its position because the other driver contradicted his own earlier statements to the investigators as to the accident’s cause. In response, the carrier appears to have asserted an advice of counsel defense.

The insured also argued bad faith in the carrier’s blanket refusal to consider subsequent psychological treatments, failure to conduct a full investigation by interviewing the investigating police officer before the UIM arbitration, failing to hire an accident reconstruction expert, and prolonging the proceedings for years in order to selectively reevaluate the claim after it learned the insured had various substance abuse issues, and a history of fall-downs, after the date of the underlying accident.

The trial court’s verdict

The trial court “found [the insurer] had acted recklessly and without a reasonable basis in continually valuing [the] claim at $200,000.” Further, the insurer “had improperly failed to reevaluate the claim to consider [the insured’s] psychological damages.” It was significant to the court that the insurer refused to consider the psychological claims based on the insured’s failure to transmit PTSD related documents, but “admitted at trial that it had received the medical records.”

The court also ruled against the carrier based on its changing positions as to the insured’s responsibility, rejecting the advice of counsel defense because the other driver’s 2004 rendition of the facts to defense counsel should not have been deemed credible based on that driver’s initial statements after the accident.

For nearly four years, after its own investigation and earlier interviewing the other driver, the insurer took the position that the insured bore no responsibility for the accident. The defendant insurer only began altering its liability position after defense counsel interviewed the underlying tortfeasor, who had changed his story.  Then, over a period of months, the insurer went from no comparative negligence, to maybe 50% comparative negligence at most, to a 100% negligence on the insured, solely based on the other driver’s interview with defense counsel.

The trial court observed the arbitrator ruled the other driver was not credible. Further, “[t]he trial court stated that although the arbitrator’s decision did not bind it, it recognized that the arbitrator was a ‘neutral, detached fact-finder’ and had not found [the insured] comparatively negligent at all.” The arbitrator also found substantial injuries. Thus, the “change of position on liability ‘represents a significant failure by [the insurer] in their ongoing responsibility to investigate and reconsider [its] position during [its] entire management of the claim.’”

The trial court further found the refusal to go above its $200,000 valuation for over a decade “was done with a purpose motivated by self-interest.” For example, the carrier failed to consider the psychological medical records admittedly in its possession.  It also failed to carry out a proper investigation and follow-up by not contacting the investigating police officer until the arbitration hearing, or hiring a reconstruction expert. Finally, the trial court found the carrier prolonged the proceedings in filing the declaratory judgment action based on the insured’s substance abuse and fall-downs after the 2000 accident.

Damages

The trial court awarded $24,650 in attorneys’ fees for the bad faith litigation, $125,000 in attorneys’ fees in connection with the UIM claim, and $125,000 in interest. It refused to award punitive damages.

Bad faith legal standards where insurer delays in paying benefits due

The Superior Court observed the following legal principles in rendering its verdict:

  1. “Ultimately, ‘[w]hen an insured obtains a bad faith verdict in a bench trial, appellate courts should only reverse in the most egregious of cases when the trial court has committed reversible error.’”

  2. “’The analysis of an insurance bad faith claim ‘is dependent on the conduct of the insurer, not its insured.’”

  3. Because ‘bad faith’ in this context stems from the duty of good faith and fair dealing implied in every insurance contract, the plaintiff need not prove the insurer acted with self-interest or ill-will.”

  4. “In order to prevail under the bad faith statute, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8371, ‘the plaintiff must present clear and convincing evidence (1) that the insurer did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy and (2) that the insurer knew of or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis.’”

  5. “An action for bad faith is not restricted to the outright denial of a claim, but rather encompasses ‘all instances of bad faith conduct by an insurer.’”

[Note: The Court cited the Superior Court’s decision Rancosky v. Washington National Insurance Co., and not the Supreme Court’s Rancosky decision, to support this point.  As discussed many times on this Blog, there is a real issue as to whether section 8371 encompasses claims that do not involve the denial of a benefit actually due, i.e., is there any cognizable statutory bad faith cause of action when the insurer does not actually owe the insured any duty to pay first party benefits, or to defend or indemnify third party claims.  See, e.g., this post.]

  1. The Superior court then added examples of bad faith, where a claim was not outright denied: “This includes a lack of good faith investigation, as well as ‘evasion of the spirit of the bargain, lack of diligence and slacking off, willful rendering of imperfect performance, abuse of a power to specify terms, and interference with or failure to cooperate in the other party’s performance.’”

[Note: In this case, there is no dispute that some benefit was due from the insurer, just a dispute of how much was due and when.  In effect, the insured is arguing that there was a decade plus delay in paying a benefit actually due; and the court’s bad faith verdict is made in light of the insurer actually owing a benefit substantially greater than what the insurer offered to pay.]

  1. “An insurer must make a timely investigation in response to the claim, and not just for arbitration.”

  2. “Indeed, an insurer must reevaluate a claim when presented with new information.”

  3. “An insurer’s mere negligence does not constitute bad faith, and an insurer may make a low estimate of an insured’s claim, so long as it has a reasonable basis.”

  4. “[A]n insurer has committed bad faith where it ‘acted in a dilatory manner, and forced the insured into arbitration by presenting an arbitrary ‘low-ball’ offer which bore no reasonable relationship to the insured’s reasonable medical expenses,’ particularly where the ‘low-ball’ offer proved to be significantly lower than the arbitration award.”

Facts supporting the bad faith verdict

The Superior Court held the following facts supported the trial court’s finding of bad faith:

The insurer never changed its claim valuation over a ten year period from the claim’s submission through a UIM arbitration, “despite mounting evidence that [the insured’s] damages surpassed [that] $200,000 [valuation].” The trial court properly rejected the insurer’s argument that there was no valuation change over time because the insurer went from taking the position that the insured had no responsibility for her own injury, to being partially responsible, and finally to being deemed wholly at fault for her own injury.  The Superior Court agreed that the evidence did not show the valuation claim ever hinged on the insured’s alleged comparative negligence.

Rather, the record demonstrated that as the insurer’s “position on liability evolved, its valuation of the claim did not change. Rather, it put a $200,000 value on [the] claim from the outset, failed to consider evidence of her psychological damages, refused to modify the valuation, and now cites subsequent developments to justify its failure to adjust the valuation in light of the information it disregarded. That it may not have failed to consider the evidence and adjust the valuation purposefully or because of ill will does not undermine the trial court’s conclusion, as [the insured] did not need to prove such states of mind.”

Other factors collectively favoring bad faith were the insurer did not change its comparative liability position until preparing for the UIM arbitration; the insurer did not interview the police officer on the scene; and that the insurer “was unable hire a reconstruction expert for arbitration because too much time had passed is further indicative that it did not make adequate inquiry into the accident in a timely manner.”

The facts did not require the trial court to award punitive damages

The Superior Court ruled: “Although the [trial] court found [the insurer] acted in bad faith, and awarded attorneys’ fees and interest accordingly, we cannot say that it abused its discretion in not awarding punitive damages. The evidence was not such that we conclude that the court’s decision was manifestly unreasonable or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill will.”

The Superior Court made the point that section 8371 does not compel the Courts of Common Pleas to award punitive damages simply because there is a bad faith verdict.  Rather, punitive damages remain within the trial judge’s discretion.  Ill-will, reckless indifference, or some other sign of malign action might provide evidence in proving statutory bad faith, but this level of intent is not a required element of a statutory bad faith claim.
Thus, just an insured can make out a bad faith claim without having to prove the level of evil intent or outrageous conduct that forms the basis for punitive damages, a finding of bad faith does not automatically encompass conduct that would mandate a finding of punitive damages.   Here, the trial judge did not find the carrier’s intent was so outrageous that punitive damages were warranted, even though the court found the carrier knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that it was unreasonably denying the insured benefits due her.

No error in limiting discovery of “post-denial” conduct

Finally, the insurer appealed the trial court’s granting a protective order as to certain requests for admissions concerning “post-denial” conduct, covering a time period beginning with the April 2004 initiation of the UIM arbitration process.  The trial court found this conduct irrelevant to the insurer’s bad faith in denying the claim. The Superior Court affirmed, finding no abuse of discretion.

The insurer had the burden to show how it was prejudiced by the trial court’s excluding this evidence, but it never “specified what evidence it sought under the admissions requests that it did not receive, and how that alleged evidence would have affected its case.”

Date of Decision:  February 4, 2021

Sartain v. USAA, Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 4 WDA 2020, 2021 WL 401954 (Pa. Super. Ct. Feb. 4, 2021) (Bender, McLaughlin, Musmanno, JJ.) (Non-precedential)

NO BAD FAITH POSSIBLE WHEN CARRIER CONDUCTS A REASONABLE REVIEW, AND MAKES ITS DETERMINATION BASED UPON AN EXPERT REPORT (Philadelphia Federal)

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Like yesterday’s post, an insurer’s reliance on an expert report precluded bad faith.

The case involved first party coverage for a home heating oil spill.  The coverage issues involved whether the leak was caused by ongoing corrosion or was sudden and accidental, and/or or was subject to a pollution exclusion. The carrier denied coverage, and the insured brought breach of contract and bad faith claims. The insurer successfully moved for summary judgment on all counts.

No Coverage Due for Ongoing Corrosion and Under Pollution Exclusion

As to the corrosion issue, the insurer provided an unrefuted expert engineering report stating that long-term corrosion caused the leak. Thus, there were no dispute of fact on this coverage issue, warranting summary judgment for the insurer.

As to the pollution exclusion, the court did an exhaustive analysis of the case law on pollution exclusions and home heating oil.  Magistrate Judge Hey found, under the circumstances of this case, home heating oil qualified as a pollutant. “Here, Plaintiff contacted an environmental services firm about remediation and provided the court with the soil analysis identifying the same chemicals as were present in the soil in [prior precedent], and provided ample evidence that those chemicals were considered hazardous or pollutants.” Thus, “the record here presents more than sufficient evidence to allow the Court to apply the pollution exclusion to the facts of this case.”

No Bad Faith in Light of Expert Report

The court did not address the issue of whether the statutory bad faith claim had to be denied as a matter of law because no coverage was due. Rather, the court analyzed bad faith solely based on the quality of the insurer’s investigation.

Magistrate Judge Hey states, “[i]n order to determine whether an insurer acted in bad faith in conducting an investigation into whether an insured was entitled to benefits, courts have looked to the following: Judges of this court have held that an insurance company’s substantial and thorough investigation of an insurance claim, forming the basis of a company’s refusal to make or continue making benefit payments, establishes a reasonable basis that defeats a bad faith claim …. To defeat a bad faith claim, the insurance company need not show that the process used to reach its conclusion was flawless or that its investigatory methods eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusion. Rather, an insurance company simply must show that it conducted a review or investigation sufficiently thorough to yield a reasonable foundation for its action.”

In this case, the court found the carrier “had a reasonable basis for its decision to deny Plaintiff’s claim based on the engineering report finding that the leak was caused by long-term corrosion, excluded by the policy, and that the heating oil was a pollutant based on environmental testing, government regulations and prior caselaw. Plaintiff has presented no evidence presenting a genuine issue of material fact in this regard.”

Thus, the insurer had a reasonable basis to deny the claim.

Biela v. Westfield Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-4383, 2021 WL 181432 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 19, 2021) (Hey, M.J.)

NO BAD FAITH FOR EVEN NEGLIGENT CLAIM HANDLING, AND WHERE INSURER’S POSITION WAS SUPPORTED BY AN EXPERT (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM bad faith case had survived a motion to dismiss, but summary judgment ended the plaintiff’s bad faith claim.

Eastern District Judge Leeson had originally allowed the bad faith claim to proceed, as plaintiff had alleged more than a valuation dispute.  Our prior blog post can be found here.

The present bad faith summary judgment motion was before Magistrate Judge Perkin. His opinion goes through the claim handling history in minute detail.  Among other things, it shows nearly a year passed before the insured provided the claim handlers with all medical records and details on the specific injuries for which he was seeking full UIM policy limits.  The record shows the insurer assigned a specialist in medical resources (SMR) to review the medical file, and later had a medical examination performed by a physician. Discovery appeared to show potential errors in the SMR’s evaluation.

Based on the medical reviews, the insurer had not paid its full UIM limits, as plaintiff demanded, at the time suit was filed.  The insured challenged the conclusions of both the SMR and the physician on the origin and scope of his injuries in bringing the bad faith claim.

Magistrate Judge Perkin observed that an “insurance company need not show that the process used to reach its conclusion was flawless or that its investigatory methods eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusions. Rather, an insurance company simply must show that it conducted a review or investigation sufficiently thorough to yield a reasonable foundation for its action.”  Thus, “[e]ven if Defendant’s claims-handling processes were not ideal, there is no evidence in the record, let alone clear and convincing evidence, to indicate that Defendant’s purported mishandling of Plaintiff’s claim was motivated by a dishonest purpose or ill will.”

Citing older case law, the court states, “while under Pennsylvania law bad faith may extend to an insurer’s investigation and other conduct in handling the claim, that conduct must ‘import a dishonest purpose.’” “Invariably, this requires that the insurer lack a reasonable basis for denying coverage, as mere negligence or aggressive protection of an insurer’s interests is not bad faith.”

[Note: In 2017, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court made clear in Rancosky that “we hold that proof of an insurance company’s motive of self-interest or ill-will is not a prerequisite to prevailing in a bad faith claim under Section 8371, as argued by Appellant. While such evidence is probative of the second Terletsky prong, we hold that evidence of the insurer’s knowledge or recklessness as to its lack of a reasonable basis in denying policy benefits is sufficient.” A link to our Rancosky summary can be found here.]

Applying this law to the facts, Magistrate Judge Perkin found that “[a]lthough the plaintiff disagrees with the conclusions of both [the SMR and the carrier’s physician], it is clear that [the carrier] had a reasonable basis to value the claim based, at a minimum, on [the physician’s] report.” Assuming that the SMR “performed an insufficient and incorrect medical review of Plaintiff’s case, Defendant did not deny Plaintiff’s claim based upon that review, but rather continued its investigation of Plaintiff’s claim. Moreover, it is not apparent on the record that Defendant has ever denied coverage to Plaintiff.”

As to how the insurer handled the various bodily injury claims, the plaintiff’s doctors had sourced these all to the auto accident at issue, while the carrier’s physician only identified some of these injuries as being caused by the accident. Thus, Magistrate Judge Perkin found:

“Similarly, the fact that the plaintiff’s experts relate all of the plaintiff’s right knee and left ankle complaints to the accident does not provide a basis for bad faith. Defendant retained [an] orthopedic surgeon … to perform an independent medical examination and records review. After completing same, [defendant’s surgeon] concluded that that only the plaintiff’s initial meniscal tear and resultant arthroscopic surgery were related to the accident. None of the plaintiff’s left ankle complaints/treatments, or additional right knee treatment, was accident-related. Accordingly, [the carrier] had a reasonable basis for its claim handling.”

Date of Decision:  January 13, 2021

Perez-Garcia v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. CV 18-3783, 2021 WL 131343 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 13, 2021) (Perkin, M.J.)

(1) NO WANTON CONDUCT UNDER MVFRL INVOKING TREBLE DAMAGES AND SUPER INTEREST; (2) NO STATUTORY BAD FAITH WHERE (i) MVFRL PREEMPTS BAD FAITH STATUTE; (ii) THERE IS ONLY A VALUATION DISPUTE; (iii) INVESTIGATION REASONABLE; (4) BIAS CLAIMS ARE MERELY SUBJECTIVE (Philadelphia Federal)

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Plaintiff was injured in an auto accident and made both PIP claims and underinsured motorist (UIM) claims. She found the carrier’s settlement offers and negotiations wholly inadequate, and brought statutory bad faith claims, and claims for damages under the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL) seeking treble damages and super interest for the insurer’s allegedly “wanton” conduct concerning her medical benefit claims.

MVFRL Claims

The court found the insured could proceed on her PIP claim under a breach of contract theory. However, the MVFRL claim for treble damages and 12% interest, under 75 Pa. C.S. § 1797(b)(4), was dismissed without prejudice. Judge Pappert held plaintiff had not pleaded “wanton” conduct, a predicate for gaining the extraordinary remedies under this statute.

The insurer also asserted the MVFRL count actually alleged a breach of the duty of good fair dealing, and moreover constituted an improper effort to get relief under the Bad Faith Statute. It asked the court to strike certain averments related to this putative backdoor bad faith claim.

The court rejected this argument: “Although Count II appears to assert a claim under the MVFRL … it also appears to assert a claim for … alleged breach of the implied contractual duty to act in good faith related to her PIP coverage. …  Because [the insured] may pursue a claim for breach of her policy’s PIP coverage obligations and because motions to strike are ‘not favored and usually will be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties,’ the Court will not strike her allegations regarding the duty of good faith and fair dealing in Count II.”

MVFRL Claims and the Bad Faith Statute

The court then addressed the statutory bad faith claim.

The court first observed that unless the insurer’s “conduct falls outside of the scope of § 1797 of the MVFRL, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1797, and involves a bad faith abuse of the process challenging more than just the insurer’s denial of first party benefits, the MVFRL preempts any statutory bad faith claim concerning … PIP benefits.” The court made clear, “To the extent that the gravamen of [the] bad faith claim is the denial of first party medical benefits and nothing more, [the insurer’s] alleged conduct is within the scope of § 1797 of the MVFRL and therefore [she] is precluded from bringing such a claim.”

However, “[s]ection 8371 bad faith claims remain cognizable when the basis of a benefits denial does not relate to the reasonableness and necessity of treatment, or when an insurer’s conduct is obviously not amenable to resolution by the procedures set forth in Section 1797(b).”

Dispute Over Valuation not Bad Faith

The insured alleged the insurer delayed her claim and denied its value. The court found these allegations did not equate to allegations that the insurer actually deny the UIM or PIP. Rather, there was a dispute over valuation.

Analyzing the matter as a valuation dispute, Judge Pappert found the insured did not allege “facts sufficient to show [the insurer’s] valuation is unreasonable.” The insured’s subjective beliefs as to her claim’s value “is not indicative of bad faith because … subjective belief as to the value of the claim may reasonably, and permissibly, differ.”

Rather, “[t]o state a bad faith claim, [an insured] must do more than call [the insurer’s] offers low-ball.” These kind of conclusory and subjective allegations “suggest nothing more than a normal dispute between an insured and insurer.”

Low but Reasonable Offers Not Bad Faith

Bad faith does not exist “merely because an insurer makes a low but reasonable estimate of an insured’s damages.” Nor does a refusal “to immediately accede to a demand for the policy limit … without more, amount to bad faith.”

Insurer had Reasonable Basis to Deny Claim/No Adequate Claim of Bias

Next, Judge Pappert rejected the argument that the insured adequately pleaded the insurer lacked a reasonable basis to deny the claim’s value.  The insurer requested medical records and had an IME performed. It assessed the insured’s injuries based on that information.

The court did not give weight to conclusory allegations the doctor performing the IME was “a biased IME doctor” and “well-known as [someone] who provides so-called Independent Medical Examinations exclusively for and apparently to the liking of insurance companies….”  Further, that the plaintiff’s own doctor said she needed surgery did not, by itself, support a bad faith claim. The insurer was not unreasonable in relying  on the IME doctor’s assessment that the symptoms requiring surgery were unrelated to the accident at issue.

“In the absence of any supporting facts from which it might be inferred that [the] investigation was biased or unreasonable, this type of disagreement in an insurance case is not unusual, and cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.”

The court, however, permitted plaintiff to amend the statutory bad faith claim “to the extent it is not preempted by the MVFRL and to the extent she is able to allege facts stating a plausible claim for relief.”

Date of Decision: October 2, 2020

Canfield v. Amica Mutual Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-2794, 2020 WL 5878261 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 2, 2020) (Pappert, J.)

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.)

PLAINTIFFS ADEQUATELY PLEAD DELAY, INADEQUATE INVESTIGATION, AND LACK OF COMMUNICATION TO SUPPORT BAD FAITH CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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This is one of the few recent cases finding that a bad faith plaintiff met federal pleading standards, surviving a motion to dismiss.

In this UIM case, the plaintiffs alleged the insured husband suffered serious and permanent bodily injuries, requiring ongoing treatment. The tortfeasor’s carrier paid $250,000, and the insureds sought the full UIM coverage limit, $1,000,000, from the insurer. The insurer’s highest offer was $200,000, only made nearly three years after the original claim. The insureds brought breach of contract and bad faith claims.

The complaint alleged the insureds cooperated with the carrier, providing information over a 32-month period, “with the necessary liquidated and unliquidated damages information from which Defendant could fairly evaluate and make a timely and reasonable offer on the claim.” The insureds estimated their damages in excess of $1,000,000, “based on Plaintiffs’ unchallenged medical records, narrative reports, and vocational loss and medical prognosis reports, which they provided to Defendant.” They further alleged the carrier “failed to timely respond or comply with Plaintiffs’ counsel’s request for Defendant to fairly evaluate the underinsured motorist claim.”

The insureds focused their bad faith arguments on the insurer’s alleged conduct over the 32-month time period. They alleged the carrier failed to properly respond to the claim and/or failed to evaluate the UIM claim; failed to offer a payment or to pay in good faith; and failed to inform the insureds of its evaluation of their claim. The insureds asserted the carrier “did not have a reasonable basis for delaying and/or denying underinsured motorist benefits or a partial tender of such under the policy” for nearly three years. The insureds labeled the refusal to pay policy limits as frivolous and unfounded, adding that the insurer “lacked a legal and factual basis” for its valuation of the claim.

The insurer moved to dismiss for failing to adequately plead a bad faith claim.

The court first focused on delay. Delay is a bad faith factor, but standing alone does not make out an automatic case for bad faith. In evaluating whether delay might constitute bad faith, “’[t]he primary consideration is the degree to which a defendant insurer knew it had no basis to deny the claimant: if delay is attributable to the need to investigate further or even to simple negligence, no bad faith has occurred.’” (Court’s emphasis)

In beginning his analysis, Judge Jones took cognizance of the potential negative impact of a 32-month window between the claim’s submission and the carrier’s first offer, though again, standing alone this could not prove bad faith. However, as pleaded in the complaint, there were additional factual allegations fleshing out the bad faith delay argument. These included the absence of any facts suggesting the husband was at fault, or that there was any question the UIM policy limit was $1,000,000. The insureds further pleaded: (i) the husband suffered multiple injuries with ongoing expenses; (ii) they provided medical records, reports, vocational loss information and medical prognoses over the 32-month period; and (3) their liquidated and unliquidated damage estimates to the insurer exceeded the $1,000,000 policy limit.

As to the carrier’s conduct, the insureds alleged that during the 32-month period the insurer did not seek an independent medical examination, and did not conduct a records review to properly evaluate the claim. The insureds added that the carrier’s motion to dismiss did not include any argument that the “delay was attributable to the need to investigate further or even to simple negligence.”

On these facts, Judge Jones found the plaintiffs set forth a plausible bad faith claim, focusing on a lack of investigation and failure to communicate. He distinguished this pleading from numerous other cases dismissing conclusory bad faith claims. He stated, “[i]n particular, it is wholly plausible that Defendant did not have a reasonable basis for denying Plaintiffs’ monies owed based upon the information Plaintiffs provided Defendant. Additionally, viewing the time lapse in conjunction with the lack of an independent medical evaluation by Defendant, it is plausible that Defendant knew of, or recklessly disregarded, its lack of a reasonable basis for denying Plaintiffs’ benefits of the policy.”

Judge Jones also rejected the argument that this was merely a disagreement over fair valuation. On a motion to dismiss, the court had to assume the truth of the plaintiffs’ factual allegations. The allegations set out a plausible case the insurer made an unreasonably low offer, or no offer, potentially constituting bad faith conduct. Judge Jones looked to Judge Stengel’s 2017 Davis decision to support this finding.

Date of Decision: April 17, 2020

Lowndes v. Travelers Property Casualty Co. of America, U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-5823, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67620 (E.D. Pa. April 17, 2020) (Jones, II, J.)

 

INSURER REASONABLY RELYING ON ENGINEERING INSPECTION REPORT CANNOT BE LIABLE FOR BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insureds had two nearly identical losses. In 2016, there was water damage to their roof and interior home damage. The insurer originally paid for the interior damage, while having an engineer inspect the roof. The engineer concluded the roof damage was not the result of a storm, but the result of uncovered faulty construction. Moreover, he concluded that even the interior home damage resulted from the uncovered faulty roof construction. The insurer issued a denial letter on this basis and the insureds did not respond.

Two years later, there was another storm, with new roof and interior damage. The insurer sent out the same engineer who reached the same conclusions, i.e., the damage resulted from faulty construction, not storm damage. Further, the record showed that the insureds had not repaired the roof after the original loss two years earlier. Again, under the policy, “coverage for damage caused by faulty, inadequate, or defective workmanship was explicitly excluded in their homeowner’s insurance policy.” Thus, the insurer denied the second claim.

On the second claim, the insured engaged a public adjuster and their own engineer. The public adjuster inspected the home, and took the position the insureds were not seeking coverage for faulty construction, but for damage caused by wind, snow and ice, on the theory that the poorly installed roof only made the home susceptible to these covered elements. The insurer’s engineer reviewed the other engineer’s report, but did not change his position, nor did the insurer rescind its denial.

The insureds sued for breach of contract and bad faith. The insurer moved for summary judgment on the bad faith claim.

The court observed that an insurer “may defeat a claim of bad faith by showing that it had a reasonable basis for its actions.” The court tied this axiom to the legal principle that summary judgment is warranted in bad faith cases when insureds cannot meet their burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the insurer’s conduct was unreasonable.

The insureds attempted to argue that the insurer improperly relied on its expert’s denying the first claim to deny the second, independent, claim. Judge Bartle rejected that argument.

The insureds conceded they never repaired the original damages identified two years earlier. Further, they did not dispute that the insurer’s engineer came out a second time and did a completely new report concluding “that the same unrepaired faulty construction caused the claimed damage,” and further rejecting the insureds’ claim the damage was caused by wind, ice, and snow.

In finding no bad faith, Judge Bartle stated “the cause of damage is not material to the plaintiffs’ bad faith claim. … Rather, the plaintiffs must present clear and convincing evidence to substantiate their claim that [the insurer] acted unreasonably.” They did not do so in this case.

The record demonstrated the insurer sent its engineer out to do a second inspection, and that the second denial was based on the second inspection, not events that transpired two years earlier. Once it was established that the insurer did base its denial on a current second inspection, the court found that “[f]or purposes of defeating a bad faith claim, an insurer may rely on the conclusions of its independent experts.”

Thus, summary judgment was granted on the bad faith claim.

Date of Decision: April 9, 2020

Balu v. The Cincinnati Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania NO. 19-3604, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63987 (E.D. Pa. April 9, 2020 (Bartle, J.)

(1) NO COVERAGE DUE MEANS NO BAD FAITH AS A MATTER OF LAW ON COVERAGE DENIAL; (2) REASONABLE RELIANCE ON ENGINEERING EXPERT NEGATES BAD FAITH INVESTIGATION CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insured church’s roof collapsed. The insurer denied coverage on the basis that its engineer determined the causal factors were “a combination of deferred maintenance, improper roof slope, and poor drainage,” and none of these collapse factors are covered causes of loss under the policy.

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The church’s evidence for coverage came from its public adjuster. He testified (1) there was heavy wind and rain “close” to the date of loss; (2) there was no long term damage from roof leaks; and (3) and even if so, he doubted any such leaks were the “main factor” in the roof’s collapse. The public adjuster, however, “did not offer an opinion as to what caused the roof’s collapse,” and the church did not produce “any other evidence suggesting the cause of the roof’s collapse was a covered event under the policy.”

The insurer successfully moved for summary judgment on both counts.

No Coverage Due

In granting summary judgment on the breach of contract claim, Judge Robreno stated the church “failed to produce any evidence, beyond mere speculation, that the roof’s collapse was caused by a wind and rain event.” Thus, there were no facts sufficient to show the roof’s collapse fell within a covered cause, and it could not meet its burden of proof.

Bad Faith Claim Analyzed for both Improper Coverage Denial and Inadequate Investigation

On the bad faith claim, the church alleged both improper denial and failure to conduct a proper investigation. The court noted that because a number of courts have held statutory bad faith claims are not contingent on the outcome of the breach of contract claim, the court would consider the inadequate investigation claim as a separate basis for plaintiff’s statutory bad faith claim. The court further observed Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has not decided this specific issue.

[We have noted before on this Blog that a failure to investigate, standing alone, is arguably not a cognizable claim under the Bad Faith Statute based on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life.]

As to improper denial, the court found for the insurer as a matter of law. “A finding that denial of the claim under the policy was warranted is inconsistent with a claim that [the insurer] acted in bad faith in denying the claim.”

As to the inadequate investigation claim, Judge Robreno observed that “[i]nsurance companies act reasonably, and do not exercise bad faith, when they deny claims based upon engineering experts’ reports.” He relied on his 2011 decision in El Bor v. Firemen’s Fund, and Western District Judge Fischer’s decision in Palmisano v. State Farm.

The court then examined the reasonableness of the insurer’s reliance. There was no dispute the engineer’s report pre-dated the carrier’s claim denial. Further, there was no support in the record for the insured’s assertions that the report was “’devoid of facts, experiments, measurements, testing, and scientific principles.’” Rather, the report was based on an actual property inspection, and that the engineer provided the carrier “with photographs and measurements of the property.”

On the other hand, in its denial letter the carrier asked the church if it could provide any additional information supporting coverage. It gave the insured 30 days to provide any further information supporting coverage, but nothing was forthcoming.

The court stated that under these facts, there was no evidence that the insurer relied on the report in bad faith, observing that even if an insurer’s expert were incorrect, that alone “’is not evidence that his conclusions were unreasonable or that Defendant acted unreasonably in relying upon them.’”

Date of Decision: April 7, 2020

Gethsemane FBH Church of God v. Nationwide Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-03677, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60780 (E.D. Pa. April 7, 2020) (Robreno, J.)