Archive for the 'PA – Experts' Category

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.)

 

(1) NO BAD FAITH WHERE COVERAGE LAW UNCERTAIN (2) BAD FAITH POSSIBLE FOR DELAY AND DENIAL OF ALLEGEDLY UNADDRESSED CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involved a highly disputed factual issue on coverage, with no clear guidance in the case law. The court denied summary judgment on the insured’s breach of contract claim, and rendered a split decision on the two bad faith claims.

The Close Coverage Call

Coverage existed if a roof was damaged by wind, allowing water to enter a building. The issue was whether a tarp could be considered part of a roof. The insurer denied coverage on the basis the tarp at issue was a temporary stopgap when blown off during a windstorm. The insured argued the tarp was sufficiently stable and integrated to be part of a roof system when it was blown off.

The court looked at local and national case law on when a tarp might be part of a more permanent structure, and thus part of a roof. The court found the issue highly fact-driven under this case law, and inappropriate for summary judgment. A jury had to decide the issue after hearing the disputed evidence and expert opinions.

The Bad Faith Claims

On the bad faith claims, the court stated that both denial of a benefit and/or improper investigative practices could constitute bad faith.

[As we have written on this Blog ad naseum, the idea that statutory bad faith covers anything other than benefit denials arguably runs contrary to Pennsylvania Supreme Court case law. In the 2007 Toy v. Metropolitan Life decision, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court strongly appears to state that only denial of a benefit creates a cognizable statutory bad faith action, whereas matters like poor claims handling would be evidence of bad faith. See this article.

A few months later, the Supreme Court seems to confirm this conclusion. In Ash v. Continental Insurance Company, citing Toy, the Supreme Court states, “The bad faith insurance statute, on the other hand, is concerned with ‘the duty of good faith and fair dealing in the parties’ contract and the manner by which an insurer discharge[s] its obligation of defense and indemnification in the third party claim context or its obligation to pay for a loss in the first party claim context.’” (Emphasis added)

While it appears highly likely Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court made clear 13 years ago that section 8371 is limited to claims for denying benefits, numerous subsequent opinions conclude that there can be other bases for statutory bad faith. These cases typically do not address Toy or Ash in reaching this conclusion.]

In the present case, the insured allegedly made two separate claims, 19 days apart. The first had to do with wind damage to roof shingles, and the second addressed the issue concerning the tarp and interior water damage.

Bad Faith Possible for Undue Delay

On the first claim, the insured alleged it gave proper notice of loss, and the insurer failed to respond at all to the claim. The insurer alleged it had no notice, but in any event took the position that its denial letter addressed both the roof shingle and tarp claims.

The court found that there was an issue of whether the insurer had constructive notice of the first claim, even without formal notice. The adjuster was made fully aware of the event, but it is unclear if the insurer thought of this as a distinct event or just part of the continuum in a single claim. It was also unclear whether the denial letter actually addressed the shingle damage as such.

Thus, bad faith had to go to the jury. “If a jury were to conclude that Defendant was aware that Plaintiff had made a claim for the April damage, but ignored it, that could be seen as an objectively unreasonable, frivolous, intentional refusal to pay (or to otherwise resolve the claim in a timely fashion).”

[While there are certainly claims handling issues here regarding delay and responsiveness to an insured, this claim ultimately includes the denial of a benefit. Thus, the issue of whether there can be statutory bad faith without the denial of a benefit is not actually before the court.]

No Bad Faith where Governing Law is Uncertain

As to the second claim, the insurer won summary judgment. This gets back to the dispute over whether the tarp constitutes a roof. “An insurer who makes a reasonable legal conclusion based on an uncertain area of the law has not acted in bad faith.” Thus, “[w]ith no binding guidance from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or the Third Circuit, and numerous fact-intensive cases on the subject, Defendant reasonably interpreted the membrane, and not the tarp, to be the roof. Even if that call is ultimately found to have been incorrect, Defendant did not act in bad faith by denying the claim.”

Date of Decision: March 18, 2020

Harrisburg v. Axis Surplus Ins. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-1213, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48115 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 18, 2020) (Beetlestone, J.)

NO BAD FAITH: (1) LOW BUT REASONABLE SETTLEMENT OFFER; (2) FAILURE TO PAY FULL RESERVES NOT BAD FAITH; (3) ADDITIONAL INVESTIGATION WOULD NOT HAVE CHANGED RESULT; (4) INSURED DELAYED CLAIMS HANDLING (Western District)

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In this UIM bad faith case, the court set out a detailed claims handling history. It shows an active claims handler, conflicting expert reports, and what appears to be a genuine dispute over the scope of the insured’s injury. The central discrepancy is between permanent disability vs. no medical record of serious injury.

The court granted summary judgment on bad faith, finding the insured could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard. It specifically addressed four issues in reaching this conclusion.

  1. Was the Settlement Offer Unreasonably Low?

The insured claimed losses in excess of $2,000,000. The UIM insurer offered $25,000. As the tortfeasor’s carrier paid $100,000, this meant the UIM carrier valued the claim at $125,000.

The court set out the relevant law. Low but reasonable offers are not bad faith, but “low-ball offers which bear no reasonable relationship to an insured’s actual losses can constitute bad faith….” A carrier can reasonably rely on expert opinion when investigating claims. In this context, insurers “can rely on IMEs of qualified health professionals who examine claimants in a usual and customary manner.”

First, the court found the claims handler’s well documented file showed an IME was warranted. Next, the court examined the claims handler’s review of the insured’s economic expert’s report of over a $2,000,000. The court found that multiple medical reports provided the claims handler with a reasonable basis to question the economic expert’s critical assumption of permanent disabled. “Thus, with no other evidence to establish [the insured’s] economic losses other than [the economic expert’s] report that assumes total disability, no reasonable juror could find bad faith by clear and convincing evidence from [the] $25,000 settlement offer to [the insured].”

  1. Reserves

Reserves were set at $55,000. The insured asserted the insurer should have offered the $55,000, rather than $25,000. The court stated that an insurance company must set reserves aside when placed on notice of a possible loss arising under its policy. “However, the failure of a carrier to offer its full settlement authority does not constitute bad faith.” In the present case, “because the Court finds no sufficient evidence of bad faith as to the $25,000 settlement offer, there is likewise no bad faith in [the insurer’s] reserve for this UIM claim.”

  1. Adequacy of Investigation

To prove bad faith investigation, the insured “must show that the outcome of the case would have been different if the insurer had done what the insured wanted done.” The putative investigative failures here would not have changed the result.

Thus, even if the claims handler had reviewed the economic loss reports with her own economic experts, sought medical authorizations, or spoken to treating physicians or the tortfeasor’s lawyer, this additional investigation would not have altered the IME opinions that there was no permanent injury, and that any injuries had resolved. These IMEs provided a reasonable basis to contest value. “Therefore, [the insured] cannot meet his burden to show that a reasonable juror could find by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] would have evaluated [the] claim differently had it conducted an earlier or different investigation as argued by plaintiff’s counsel.”

  1. Unnecessary Delay in Investigation

“In order for an insured to recover for bad faith from delay, an insured must demonstrate that ‘the delay is attributable to the defendant, that the defendant had no reasonable basis for the actions it undertook which resulted in the delay, and that the defendant knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that it had no reasonable basis to deny payment.’”

The court first observed that much of the delay in this matter was caused by the insured. There were delays in providing information and producing documents to the insurer. The insured also changed his damage theory during the claims handling process, which led to insurer to require additional evaluations. Thus, “no reasonable juror could conclude by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] acted in bad faith in the timeline of its investigation….”

Date of Decision: February 19, 2020

Stewart v. GEICO Insurance, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania 2:18-CV-00791-MJH, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28459 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 19, 2020) (Horan, J.)

Our thanks to Attorney Dan Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.

 

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.)

 

FAILURES TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE INSURED UNDERMINE INSURER’S SUMMARY JUDGMENT EFFORTS; INSURER MUST SHOW ACTUAL DISAGREEMENT OVER VALUE OCCURRED (Western District)

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The court denied the insurer’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s UIM bad faith. Key issues were the insurer’s having failed to adduce evidence explaining the basis for its denial, and not sufficiently adducing facts contrary to the claims handling allegations in the insured’s complaint. The carrier focused on the fact that the insured did not take discovery, but this was not as detrimental to plaintiff’s case as the insurer believed.

The insured received $50,000 from the tortfeasor’s carrier, and had $250,000 in UIM coverage under his own policy. The complaint alleged detailed facts supporting the position that the insured was highly cooperative in producing information, both independently and upon the insurer’s request. Moreover, the insured submitted to an examination under oath and an independent medical examination, and follow up requests after both.

The claim/investigation process went on for eight months, with the insured’s counsel repeatedly making policy limits demands, with no counteroffer. Ultimately, the insurer offered no payment of any kind to the insured.

During the claim/investigation process, the insured filed a writ of summons. The insurer ultimately responded with a rule to file a complaint, and after the complaint was filed it removed the action to federal court. [Note: Among the various legal principles governing bad faith claims the court recites, is “[t]he Third Circuit has also recognized that ‘using litigation in a bad faith effort to evade a duty owed under a policy [is] actionable under [Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute].’” The court did not amplify on that principle in this case.]

The court observed the carrier did not develop a factual record refuting the detailed claims handling history in the complaint. Thus, “[w]hether the undisputed facts in the Complaint are sufficient for Plaintiff to prove by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] acted in bad faith is for the jury to determine.” Further, there was no evidence in the record as to how, or if, the insurer provided the basis for its claim denial to the insured. At most, the rule to file a complaint functioned as the notice of denial; but even then, the insurer never gave the insured “any information about the basis for its decision.”

The insurer did include a copy of its medical expert’s reports in moving for summary judgment. These reports concluded that the insured “required no further care, treatment or limitations as a result of his motor vehicle accident.” On the other hand, the court found that the insured had apparently produced his own medical expert report during the litigation, opining that significant medical issues resulted in a “no work” restriction.

The court stated: “It may well be that [the insurer] relied upon the results of the independent medical examination or other valid grounds, but the record does not reflect that [this] report was supplied to Plaintiff or that [the insurer] relied on this report in denying Plaintiff’s claim.”

Generally, the court accepted that there might a been a reasonable basis for evaluating the claim for eight months and then denying it, but that reasoning was not disclosed in the record. The insurer attempted to frame the issue as merely a disagreement over value (apparently $250,000+ on the insured’s end and $0 on the insurer’s end).

However, “to prevail on its motion on the ground that the parties had a legitimate value disagreement, it is [the insurer’s] burden, [1] initially, to point to evidence illustrating not only that there was indeed a disagreement over the value of Plaintiff’s claim (as opposed to an outright denial), but [2] also that [the insurer] communicated that disagreement to Plaintiff, for example, by making a counter-offer. [The insurer] has not done so.”

In sum, “[b]ecause there are genuine issues of material fact regarding Plaintiff’s bad faith claim based upon the current state of the record, [the insurer] is not entitled to judgment as matter of law.”

Date of Decision: February 10, 2020

Baldridge v. Geico Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania, Civil Action No. 18-1407, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22311 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 10, 2020) (Dodge, M.J.)

On April 1, 2020, Magistrate Judge Dodge denied the insurer’s motion for reconsideration. A copy of her opinion can be found here.

EVEN THOUGH COVERAGE MIGHT BE DUE, INSURED COULD NOT ESTABLISH DENIAL WAS UNREASONABLE (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involved a wall collapse. The insured and carrier provided each other with expert reports on causation. The carrier’s expert analysis would result in a finding of no coverage under the policy, but the insured’s expert analysis would result in coverage. The insurer denied coverage, and the insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

After discovery, the insured moved for summary judgment on both counts. The court denied summary judgment on the contract claim, because issues of fact remained on causation that might allow for coverage, but granted summary judgment on the bad faith claim after finding that the insured could not meet her burden to show the insurer lacked a reasonable basis in denying coverage.

In addressing bad faith, the court observed that an insurer can defeat bad faith by showing there was a reasonable basis for its action. The court further made clear that at the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff’s obligation to prove its case at trial by clear and convincing evidence of bad faith was a necessary consideration. In this case, even taking the facts in the insured’s favor, the insurer had a reasonable basis to deny the claim.

The insurer’s denial was based on a reputable forensic engineer’s report that determined two causes of the collapse; both of which were excluded under the policy. The insured argued that the carrier should have rejected this report, and instead followed the analysis in the report provided by the insured’s expert. The court found this was not enough to make out a claim of bad faith because “the mere fact that the parties disagree about coverage is not enough to show bad faith.” The court cited Post v. St. Paul Travelers Ins. Co., for the proposition that there is no bad faith “when the plaintiff could only show the parties disagreed about coverage….”

The insured also argued bad faith because the insurer allegedly “ignored the possibility that [the insured’s] house would be demolished.” The court found this irrelevant to the bad faith claim.

“If the collapse was not covered under the insurance policy, [the insurer] would not have been obligated to pay [the insured] regardless of whether her house was later demolished. In other words, whether the house was demolished would have no impact on [the] coverage decision.” Thus, this argument did not go to the reasonableness of the coverage decision itself.

In sum, the insured did not adduce evidence that the insurer lacked a reasonable basis for its coverage decision, and summary judgment was granted on the bad faith count.

Date of Decision: January 31, 2020

Hentz v. Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 19-2007, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17379 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 31, 2020) (Sanchez, J.)

BAD FAITH EXPERT PERMITTED TO TESTIFY, WITHIN CERTAIN LIMITATIONS (Western District)

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The court permitted plaintiff’s insurance bad faith expert to testify, within certain limitations as to what may be discussed or disclosed.

The case involved a first party property loss, arising out of fire damage to a commercial greenhouse sterilization system (the “ozone system”). The insured alleged the carrier (1) “wrongly denied coverage to replace the entire ozone system; (2) … wrongly denied coverage for crops that were damaged by ozone exposure caused by a mechanical breakdown of the ozone system; and (3) [the insured] was forced out of business as a result of the Defendant’s conduct.” The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The insured sought to use three experts, including a bad faith expert. The bad faith expert was an attorney and had over 20 years of experience as a claim adjuster. He was proffered “as a bad faith expert to offer opinions regarding: (1) insurance industry standards and practices; (2) Defendant’s handling of the insurance claim at issue; (3) Defendant’s compliance with insurance statutes and regulations; and (4) the interpretation of Defendant’s policy issued to Plaintiff.”

The insurer brought a Daubert motion to preclude the bad faith expert’s proposed testimony. The carrier argued that the expert attorney’s legal conclusions would not help a jury, and that at a minimum the expert “be precluded from testifying as to: (1) whether or not the Defendant violated statutes or regulations; and (2) the interpretation of Plaintiff’s insurance policy.”

The court observed “that the admissibility of expert testimony hinges on a ‘trilogy of restrictions’: qualification, reliability, and fit.” The testimony here hinged on fit. Federal Rule 702 the “expert testimony must ‘help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.’” “The standard for fit is ‘not that high,’ although it is ‘higher than bare relevance.’” The insurer argued that the bad faith expert’s “testimony does not ‘fit’ the claim at issue: bad faith is a legal concept of general application,  which does not require scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge to be presented to assist the jury.”

The Court thought otherwise. It found, with certain limitations, that the bad faith expert’s testimony would “assist the jury in determining what constitutes reasonable conduct when handling an insurance claim. In the Court’s estimation, [the expert’s] twenty-six (26) years of experience as a claims adjuster will be quintessentially helpful in providing the jury with guideposts as to what constitutes reasonable adjusting and claims handling conduct and will be substantially more useful than asking the jury to in essence ‘wing it’ as to reasonableness in this out-of-the-ordinary situation.”

This expert was “permitted to testify as to best practices in handling insurance claims of the type involved here. [He] may not discuss his legal training or experience. And he is not permitted to testify as to whether or not the Defendant violated statutes or regulations (but he is not barred from testifying as to what constitutes best practices regarding the handling of insurance claims, even if the genesis of such practices are statutes or regulations, which he cannot talk about).”

Date of Decision: January 27, 2020

Three Rivers Hydroponics, LLC v. Florists’ Mutual Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:15-cv-809, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12644 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 27, 2020) (Hornak, 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.