Archive for the 'NJ – Choice/Conflict of Law' Category

MARCH 2016 BAD FAITH CASES: (1) BAD FAITH CLAIM FOR FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE SETTLEMENT DEMANDS WITHIN POLICY LIMITS REQUIRE SAME PROOF UNDER PENNSYLVANIA OR NEW JERSEY LAW; (2) POTENTIAL LOWER STANDARD FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES IN PENNSYLVANIA NOT A BASIS TO DISMISS CLAIM; (3) ACTIONABLE CLAIM AGAINST AN INSURER’S MANAGING AGENT FOR CONTRIBUTION (New Jersey Federal)

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In Allegheny Plant Services v. Carolina Casualty Insurance Company, the insured was subject to personal injury tort claims. The carrier provided defense counsel, and the case went to trial.  The jury verdict exceeded policy limits by nearly $700,000.  The insured brought suit against its insurer for failing to settle and/or inform the insured that there was an opportunity to settle within policy limits.  The insurer also sued appointed defense counsel.  Defense counsel joined the insurer’s agent that was allegedly engaged to monitor and manage the defense litigation, on a theory that the agent knew the policy limits and failed to manage the litigation prudently.

Although the case was transferred to New Jersey, the insured brought a Pennsylvania statutory bad faith claim against the insurer. The insurer sought to dismiss that claim on summary judgment. The court denied that motion.  Likewise the court denied the managing agent’s motion to dismiss defense counsel’s claim for contribution.

The court applied a conflict of laws analysis on the bad faith claim. Although New Jersey’s insurance bad faith claim is based in common law (the “fairly debatable” standard), not statute, the basic standards of proof are the same:  the lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits, and a knowing or reckless disregard of that fact in denying benefits. The court observed that Pennsylvania’s courts had rejected proof of self-interest or ill-will as a third element.

The court then addressed the potential conflict between Pennsylvania’s right to punitive damages under the Bad Faith statute, and New Jersey’s general statute on punitive damages. It found a lack of clarity in the law on when punitive damages may be allowed under Pennsylvania’s Bad Faith statute, i.e., can punitive damages be awarded solely on a finding of statutory bad faith, and is that a different, lower, standard than an award of traditional punitive damages?

The court then stated: “I find it plausible that Pennsylvania would permit, if not require, a punitive damages award based on a bad faith verdict. Such a verdict, however, would have to carry within it the factual basis for a traditional award of punitive damages. Otherwise, punitive damages would be awarded in every bad faith case; if that had been intended, I would have expected a much clearer legislative statement to that effect. At any rate, such a conflict as to punitive damages—even if it existed—would not require me to dismiss Count 3, the relief sought here.”

Without resolving this critique of Pennsylvania law, the court went on to observe that should this issue arise at trial, Pennsylvania and New Jersey law could apply to proving bad faith, as both state’s laws are identical on that issue.  And, if it came down to it at trial, the parties could again move to determine which state’s law applied to punitive damages. Thus, there was still no basis to dismiss the case under either state’s law. Further, were there a true conflict, the court concluded that Pennsylvania law would apply; which would seem to resolve the punitive damages issue, but the court appeared to leave that open up to the time of trial.

As to the managing agent’s motion to dismiss, the court observed that the key to a viable claim for contribution among joint tortfeasors  is “common liability to the plaintiff at the time the cause of action accrued.” The court found that defense counsel’s third party complaint against the alleged agent adequately set forth a claim that that the managing agent contributed to a unitary injury suffered by the insured. Factual issues concerning the ability to control the defense, and the alleged agent’s contractual relations with the insurer, among other things, could not be disposed of at the motion to dismiss stage.

Date of Decision:  March 17, 2016

Allegheny Plant Servs. v. Carolina Cas. Ins. Co., No. 14-4265, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35189 (D.N.J. Mar. 17, 2016) (McNulty, J.)

MARCH 2014 BAD FAITH CASES: THIRD CIRCUIT APPLIES RESTATEMENT TO DETERMINE APPLICABLE STATE’S LAW ON POLICY INTERPRETATION WHERE PENNSYLVANIA AND NEW JERSEY CONFLICTED ON SCOPE OF “EMPLOYER’S EXCLUSION”; NO BAD FAITH WHERE INSURED SUPPLIED INSURER WITH WRONG DOCUMENTS AS BASIS FOR COVERAGE, AND WHERE THERE WAS A DISPUTE OF LAW ON APPLICABILITY OF EMPLOYER’S EXCLUSION AND TRIAL COURT HAD FOUND NEW JERSEY LAW TO REACH A SIMILAR CONCLUSION AS PENNSYLVANIA LAW (Third Circuit)

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In Arcelormittal Plate, LLC v. Joule Tech. Servs., the issue involved yet another case on the effect of an employer’s exclusion upon an insured that did not itself employ the injured plaintiff-employee. The injured employee was an employee of a the named insured, who brought a claim against an additional insured.

The case hinged on a choice-of-law analysis as Pennsylvania law would apply the exclusion to all insureds, while New Jersey law would apply it solely to the insured employing the plaintiff-employee, under the policy language at issue.  If resolved in favor of New Jersey law on the key exclusion issue, then the court would have to address the arguments of late notice, and that there was no written contract in place at the time of the injury giving the additional insured, additional insured status at the relevant time.

The policy language at issue involved the employee of “the insured” language, as opposed to the employee of “any insured” language.  It contained a provision alternately known as an “employer’s liability exclusion,” an “employer’s exclusion,” or an “employee exclusion.” The exclusion stated as follows: “[t]his insurance does not apply to . . . ‘[b]odily injury’ to (1) [a]n ’employee’ of the insured arising out of and in the course of (a) [e]mployment by the insured; or (b) [p]erforming duties related to the conduct of the insured’s business[.]” Insured was defined as “any person or organization qualifying as such under SECTION II [entitled “WHO IS AN INSURED”].”

An endorsement to the policy amended Section II to “include as an insured any person or organization with whom you have agreed to add as an additional insured by written contract.”

The policy also contained a severability clause, sometimes known as a “separation of insureds” clause, stating that “[t]his insurance applies: a. As if each Named Insured were the only Named Insured; and b. Separately to each insured against whom claim is made or ‘suit’ is brought.” The policy provided that Liberty had “the right and duty to defend the insured against any ‘suit’ seeking [bodily injury] damages.”

The court found a conflict of laws, and determined New Jersey law should apply under Pennsylvania’s choice-of-law rules, which followed the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws. In conducting this analysis, it made clear that: “The authors of the Restatement expressed a preference ‘that only one set of laws govern a given insurance contract, and . . . disapproval of the possibility that the laws of different jurisdictions might apply to different risks under the policy.'”

Applying Pennsylvania choice-of-law rules, the court had to determine which state had the greater interest in the application of its law, which involved weighing the parties’ contacts and relationships with each state on a qualitative scale according to their relation to the policies and interests underlying the particular issue.

The Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, in an official comment, explains that in an insurance dispute, a court should generally give the location of the insured risk “greater weight than any other single contact.” Nonetheless, if the policy covers “a group of risks that are scattered throughout two or more states,” the location of the risk has “less significance” to the choice-of-law determination.

In that case, because the Policy covered all of named insured’s operations, and because the named insured dispatches its employees to several states, the “location of the insured risk” is scattered among jurisdictions.

The court was thus obligated to consider a number of other factors, under Restatement section 188(2): “(1) the place of contracting; (2) the place of negotiation of the contract; (3) the place of performance; (4) the location of the subject matter of the contract; and (5) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties.”

Considering these factors on a “qualitative scale,” the court concluded that New Jersey had a greater interest in the application of its law than Pennsylvania. The contract itself was made in New Jersey, involved a New Jersey primary insured, and covered the diverse risks associated with the activities of that company across several states. This conclusion also renders less likely the possibility that the insurer and the insured will face varying obligations under the same policy depending on the locus of the underlying tort.

Specifically, the place of contracting was New Jersey, which is where the insurance company delivered the insurance contract to the insured.

Second, the insurer did not rebut the additional insured’s assertion that at least some of the negotiations took place in New Jersey.

Third, the place of performance, and fourth, the location of the contract’s subject matter, both extend into the several jurisdictions where the insured sends its employees.

Last, the parties are diverse. The insurer is a Massachusetts corporation with its principal place of business in Massachusetts. The primary insured is a New Jersey corporation with its principal place of business in New Jersey. And the additional insured is subject to several layers of corporate ownership such that its principals are considered citizens of Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Luxembourg.

After finding coverage, the court next considered the bad faith claims under New Jersey law on the basis of there being no contract creating additional insured status, and late notice.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has described the standards applicable to a claim for bad faith denial of insurance benefits as follows: “To show a claim for bad faith, a plaintiff must show the absence of a reasonable basis for denying benefits of the policy and the defendant’s knowledge or reckless disregard of the lack of a reasonable basis for denying the claim. It is apparent, then, that the tort of bad faith is an intentional one. . . . [I]mplicit in that test is our conclusion that the knowledge of the lack of a reasonable basis may be inferred and imputed to an insurance company where there is a reckless . . . indifference to facts or to proofs submitted by the insured.” A plaintiff must prove that “no debatable reasons existed for denial of the benefits.”

The insurer adduced expert testimony from a claims handling expert, who concluded that under applicable law and industry standards, the insurer had performed an “intelligent, honest, fair and reasonable review and investigation” into the additional insured’s demand for coverage, based on three justifications:

(1) the additional insured’s initial demand letter did not cite the contract that the named the additional insureds, and which the additional insureds eventually acknowledged governed this dispute; but instead asserted coverage based on purchase orders which the insurer reasonably determined did not establish a right to coverage; and the insurer did not get the applicable contract for over a year;

(2) the insurer was justified in denying coverage because that contract did not entitle the additional insured to coverage for bodily injury to the named insured’s employee resulting from the additional insured’s own negligence; and

(3) the insurer was justified in denying coverage because of unduly late notice regarding the underlying lawsuit, which the expert believed irreparably prejudiced the insurer’s ability to defend the claim.

The additional insured claimed that the carrier had the relevant contract in its possession at an earlier date, and suggested that the carrier had “an action plan” to deny coverage on a meritless ground. The court found the “action plan” language innocuous when taken in context, and that it went back to the issue of relying on the wrong documents to make a claim for coverage.

The District Court had dismissed the bad faith claim for two reasons: (1) its finding that the employee exclusion barred the claim and (2) the fact that additional insured initially predicated its claim on the incorrect documents.

The Third Circuit concluded that in light of the District Court’s ruling and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s taking a different position than New Jersey courts on the same language, whether the employee exclusion barred the claims presented a legal issue that was at least “fairly debatable.”

Moreover, the additional insured’s misplaced reliance on certain irrelevant documents throughout much of the dispute, including up to and beyond the start of the instant litigation, was uncontested. In sum, because the insurer denied coverage based on factual and legal grounds that were at least plausible at the time of its decision, the insurer was entitled to summary judgment on the bad faith denial of coverage.

Date of Decision:  February 18, 2014

Arcelormittal Plate, LLC v. Joule Tech. Servs., No. 13-1212, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 2905, (3d Cir. Feb. 18, 2014) (Vanaskie, J.).

MAY 2013 BAD FAITH CASES: COURT GRANTS CARRIER’S SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOTION BECAUSE INSURED FAILED TO ALLEGE A CLAIM FOR BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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In Quinn v. Liberty Mut. Group, the carrier filed for summary judgment on a claim for bad faith brought by the representative of an insured decedent’s estate (see this post). The decedent sustained serious injuries as the result of a car accident with an uninsured motorist. The carrier refused to pay an arbitration award and the representative filed suit for bad faith.

The carrier claimed that it acted with the reasonable belief that New Jersey law applied, which would permit them to properly reject the arbitration award and demand a trial.

The court granted the carrier’s motion, reasoning that it did not need to decide whether Pennsylvania or New Jersey law applied because the claimant’s allegations were insufficient to sustain a finding of bad faith.

Date of Decision: March 7, 2013

Quinn v. Liberty Mut. Group, No. 11-5364, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31194, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (E.D. Pa. Mar. 7, 2013) (Bartle, J.)