Archive for the 'NJ – Law unsettled' Category

BAD FAITH NOT POSSIBLE WHERE THERE IS SPLIT IN LEGAL AUTHORITY ON INTERPRETING POLICY LANGUAGE (New Jersey Appellate Division)

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The central issue in this Superstorm Sandy case was whether coverage was due for a “collapse.” Collapse was a defined term, but the defining language itself opened the door to multiple disputes over the meaning of individual words and concepts. For example, the court had to determine possible meanings of “caving in” and whether “abrupt” meant a matter of seconds or some longer period.  The parties argued the fine details of both the policy language and the facts, including competing expert reports, and the court went through a step-by-step analysis addressing the meaning of each relevant sub-term.

While the insurer made some plausible arguments, the court ultimately had to follow the principle that where the policy language reasonably could be interpreted in more than one way, the interpretation that favors coverage must be applied. Thus, at the end of the day, the trial court and Appellate Division found coverage was due.

On the other hand, the insured’s bad faith claim failed on the same record.

The court observed generally that in first party property damage cases, “the insured must demonstrate that coverage was so clear it was not ‘fairly debatable.’”  If a claim is fairly debatable, there can be no bad faith. Thus, “a plaintiff must show the lack of a reasonable basis for denying the claim or unreasonably delaying its processing, and the insurer’s knowledge or reckless disregard that it was acting unreasonably.”

Relevant to this case, “[a]n insurer’s denial of coverage may be fairly debatable if the insurer was ‘not acting in derogation of well settled New Jersey law’ and there was a split among other jurisdictions on a legal question pertaining to coverage.” Here, there was no clear New Jersey law interpreting the multiple disputes over policy language the insurer raised in denying coverage. “On that basis, [the] decision to deny coverage was fairly debatable, as there was no binding New Jersey precedent interpreting [the insurer’s] policy form.”

Moreover, there was a split in the case law among other jurisdictions concerning the scope of coverage under this same policy language. The Appellate Division favored one line of case law interpreting the policy form at issue, resulting in coverage. This did not change the reality that there was a split of authority and other courts would find no coverage. This lack of clear consensus likewise precluded a finding of bad faith.

Date of Decision: November 19, 2020

Parko Properties, LLC v. Mercer Ins. Co. of New Jersey, Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division No. A-4137-17T2, 2020 WL 6799137 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Nov. 19, 2020) (Oster, Vernola, JJ.)

INSURERS NOT ESTOPPED FROM DENYING COVERAGE, AND COVERAGE HAD TO BE PROVED (New Jersey Appellate Division)

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This long ongoing litigation involved a dispute over whether a subcontractor’s poor workmanship could be a covered “occurrence”. During the pendency of this litigation, the matter went up to New Jersey’s Supreme Court in separate lengthy litigation. The Supreme Court ultimately established law in plaintiff’s favor. In the interim before that decision, however, faced with the uncertainly of coverage, the present insured itself settled with a number of plaintiffs who sued for faulty workmanship.

The case involved multiple insurers and different policy periods.  The insured sought reimbursement in connection with the litigation and settlement sums paid.  The insured also asserted every policy was triggered by an “occurrence” during each policy period. The plaintiff moved for summary judgment on the bases that the insurers were estopped and that there were covered occurrences. The Law Division denied this motion in significant part.

The trial judge did find the policies were implicated and coverage was triggered. However, that judge also “concluded there were material factual disputes as to the reasonableness of the settlements, both as to the ‘various liabilities of the insurers[,]’ and whether defendants were ‘entitled to a diminution of’ their share of the settlements ‘based on covered claims as opposed to uncovered claims.’” Thus, the trial court denied plaintiff summary judgment.

Plaintiff and defendants then entered a “high-low” settlement. This involved a consent order for judgment, where plaintiff reserved the right to appeal the summary judgment denial, to address the insurers’ indemnification obligations. Per the consent judgment, if the Appellate Division affirmed the trial judge, the insurers would pay the low settlement sum; however, if the Appellate Division reversed the Law Division in its entirety, then the insurers would pay the high settlement sum.

On appeal, “plaintiff contended that because defendants ‘wrongfully refused coverage[,]’ causing plaintiff to defend itself against claims covered by the policy and ultimately settle those claims, defendants were liable for the entire settlement amounts if they were ‘reasonable and … made in good faith[.]’” Plaintiff relied on the seminal case of Griggs v. Bertram.

The Appellate Division framed the issue as, “having denied coverage, must defendants pay the full settlement amounts if reasonable and entered in good faith? Or, despite their denial of coverage under the policies, are defendants entitled to an allocation determination, both temporally and substantively, i.e., whether the homeowners’ claims were for ‘property damage’ covered under the policies?”

The court denied plaintiff relief, distinguishing Griggs. It then affirmed the trial court’s decision, thus resulting in the low settlement sum being due.

Unlike Griggs, in this case the defendant insurers had issued timely coverage denials. Their arguments proved successful during the very early stages of the litigation in the Law Division, and even the Appellate Division left the coverage issue open.

Thus, the court found “no basis to apply equitable principles of estoppel to bar defendants’ challenge to coverage, including a temporal and substantive allocation of covered and uncovered claims.” Rather, “a good-faith challenge to coverage is not a breach of an obligation to defend.” Further, the defendant insurers “were entitled ‘to dispute coverage based upon the language’ of the policies.”

Thus, there was no equitable basis, under Griggs, to prohibit the carriers from asserting contractual coverage defenses.  It then fell on plaintiff prove that coverage was due, and the insurers were wrong to deny coverage.  “[I]f there is a factual dispute that, once resolved, may indicate that an occurrence is not covered, and it is unlikely to be resolved at trial, an insurer may deny coverage and await judicial resolution.”  If the insured can ultimately make out its case, the carrier would have to reimburse “plaintiff for its costs and the settlement amounts, assuming they were reasonable and entered in good faith.”

The court again observed, however, “defendants were well within their rights to contest the coverage issues.” It found there were disputed issues of fact over “the nature, extent and timing of the damages” at issue. This could not be decided on summary judgment, and these factual issues “were properly left for a factfinder to conclusively resolve.”

Thus, “[r]esolution of those factual issues was necessary to determine coverage under the policies, and as a result, whether defendants’ denial of coverage was wrongful. Under controlling precedent and the facts of this case, only defendants’ wrongful denial of coverage would translate into a duty to reimburse plaintiff for reasonable settlements it entered into with the homeowners in good faith.” As there was no unequivocal reversal, plaintiff was left with the low settlement sum at the end of the day.

Date of Decision: October 5, 2020

Bob Meyer Communities, Inc. v. Ohio Casualty Insurance Company, New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division No. A-4526-18T3, 2020 WL 5887025 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 5, 2020) (Messano, Smith, JJ.)

NEW JERSEY COURT DISMISSES BREACH OF CONTRACT, BAD FAITH, FRAUD, AND UNFAIR CLAIM SETTLEMENT PRACTICES ACT COUNTS WITHOUT PREJUDICE, AND GIVES AN OPPORTUNITY TO AMEND (New Jersey Federal)

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A pro se plaintiff brought a barrage of claims against its commercial general liability insurer, among others. He alleges water damage to the insured’s work on a retaining wall the insured was engaged to build. However, there was no third party claim for damages against the insured relating to water damaged wall. The insurer denied the claim, i.e., a claim for damages to a wall built for a third party on which the third party asserted no claim.

First, the court found there was no breach of contract, and dismissed a number of counts on those grounds. However, dismissal was without prejudice and plaintiff could amend if it he could plead specific facts showing a breach.

Next, the court dismissed counts alleging violations of New Jersey’s Unfair Claim Settlement Practices Act (UCSPA). The court stated the “UCSPA does not apply to general liability and property insurance.” Thus, “[b]ecause the Policy is a general liability policy … and not a life or health insurance policy or annuity, the UCSPA Counts … are dismissed without prejudice.” The court specifically declined to address the argument that there is no UCSPA private right of action, saying the law was unclear on that point. The court gave leave to amend, but the plaintiff “must provide additional factual allegations detailing how the Policy falls under the UCSPA.”

Third, plaintiff asserted bad faith claims based upon an inadequate investigation. The court recited New Jersey’s bad faith standards:

  1. “To state a claim for bad faith denial of insurance coverage, Plaintiff must show: (1) the insurer lacked a reasonable basis for its denying benefits, and (2) the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded the lack of a reasonable basis for denying the claim.”

  2. Bad faith claims should be “analyzed in light of a ‘fairly debatable’ standard, which posits that ‘[i]f a claim is “fairly debatable,” no liability in tort will arise.’”

  3. “[T]o establish a first-party bad faith claim for denial of benefits in New Jersey, a plaintiff must show ‘that no debatable reasons existed for denial of the benefits.’”

  4. “Thus, when the insured’s complaint presents issues of material fact as to the underlying claim, dismissal of a related bad faith claim is proper.”

The court found no bad faith claim stated because the plaintiff did not “allege that Defendants lacked a fairly debatable reason for its denial of coverage. Rather, the Policy illustrates that Defendants did possess a reasonable basis for its denying benefits.” Again, however, the bad faith claims were dismissed without prejudice, with leave to amend given, but only if the plaintiff can provide “additional factual allegations detailing how Defendants lacked a reasonable basis for denying Plaintiff’s insurance claim.”

Lastly, plaintiff alleged fraudulent misrepresentation in the policy’s sale to plaintiff, concerning the scope of coverage. Again, the court dismissed without prejudice, but would only consider amendment proper the plaintiff could plead actual facts supporting a fraud claim.

Date of Decision: August 31, 2020

Gage v. Preferred Contractors Ins. Co., U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey No. 19-cv-20396 MAS ZNQ, 2020 WL 5107351 (D.N.J. Aug. 31, 2020) (Shipp, J.)

OCTOBER 2018 BAD FAITH CASES: NEW JERSEY INSURANCE COMMISSIONER PURSUES CIVIL PENALTIES UNDER FRAUD PREVENTION ACT (New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division) (Not Precedential)

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This case involved New Jersey’s Commissioner of the Department of Banking and Insurance’s pursuit of a claim under the Insurance Fraud Prevention Act (IFPA). The trial court found that the insured falsely claimed she was injured while driving, and it imposed civil penalties, including counsel fees.

Before the commissioner’s action, the insured actually won $25,000 in arbitration against her carrier, but at the trial de novo the jury concluded that the accident never occurred and found for the insurer. After the jury verdict, the commissioner brought this IFPA action. The insured appealed on various procedural grounds, most of which were rejected. The appellate court did remand, however, as the special civil part judge did not provide the reasoning behind the civil penalties imposed.

Date of Decision: October 19, 2018

Badolato v. McMillan, Superior Court Appellate Division DOCKET NO. A-5474-16T1, 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2311, 2018 WL 5091799 (New Jersey Appellate Division Oct. 19, 2018) (Koblitz, Ostrer, JJ.)

 

MAY 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: NO BAD FAITH WHERE REASONABLE BASIS TO DENY ULTIMATELY COVERED CLAIM, AND GOVERNING LAW UNDEVELOPED AT THE TIME OF DENIAL (New Jersey Appellate Division)

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The appellate court addressed bad faith in this environmental contamination coverage case. The panel reiterated the law that “an insurance company may be liable to a policyholder for bad faith in the context of paying benefits under a policy. The scope of that duty is not to be equated with simple negligence. In the case of denial of benefits, bad faith is established by showing that no debatable reasons existed for denial of the benefits. In the case of processing delay, bad faith is established by showing that no valid reasons existed to delay processing the claim and the insurance company knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that no valid reasons supported the delay.”

The court then restated the “fairly debatable” standard, which mandates that an insured bad faith plaintiff must be able to establish “as a matter of law a right to summary judgment on the substantive claim would not be entitled to assert a claim for an insurer’s bad-faith refusal to pay the claim.” The court affirmed that the trial court’s summary judgment dismissing the bad faith claim was proper. Although the appellate court affirmed a finding that coverage was due, the insurer had a reasonable basis to deny the claim, “particularly considering that the governing law was not as developed at that time as it is now.”

Date of Decision: April 21, 2017

Mid-Monmouth Realty Assocs. v. Metallurgical Indus., DOCKET NO. A-0237-14T2, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 993 (App.Div. Apr. 21, 2017) (Brown, Fuentes, Simonelli, JJ.)

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.).

NOVEMBER 2012 BAD FAITH CASES: NO BAD FAITH WHERE TWO REASONABLE INTERPRETATIONS OF POLICY PROVISION AND DEARTH OF CASE LAW GIVING GUIDANCE, EVEN WHERE INSURED PREVAILS; NO PRIVATE RIGHT OF ACTION UNDER NEW JERSEY’S INSURANCE TRADE PRACTICES ACT (New Jersey Federal)

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In Rothschild v. Foremost Ins. Co., the court was faced with the basic issue of interpreting what the carrier was required to pay for a property loss in light of an “other insurance” provision. The two insurers agreed that the defendant insurer’s pro rata share, based on total available insurance between the two was 55%. The insured argued that the defendant carrier had to pay its pro rata percentage (55%) of the total loss, whereas the carrier argued it only had to pay that same pro rata share of its policy limits. This made about a $35,000 difference. The insured brought a breach of contract claim, a bad faith claim and a claim for violation of New Jersey’s statutory Insurance Trade Practices Act, N.J.S.A. 17:29B-4.

The court ultimately agreed with the insured’s interpretation of the policy language on the base figure for the pro rata share, but also found that the carrier’s argument was reasonable. Thus, there was no bad faith. In the first party context, bad faith requires a denial of a benefit or processing delay, the absence of a reasonable basis for the denial or delay, and a knowing or reckless indifference of the unreasonableness of the position. Mere negligence or mistake is not enough to establish bad faith. In this case, the carrier’s reading was not unreasonable and there was a dearth of case law on point providing guidance on the issue.

Thus, “the mere fact that the Court holds in favor of Plaintiffs’ interpretation of the contract does not show that Defendant lacked a reasonable basis for denying Plaintiffs benefits of the policy.”

Finally, the insured sought to bring a private cause of action under the ITPA. The court observed that the law is well established that this statute does not provide a private cause of action.

Date of Decision: August 31, 2009

Rothschild v. Foremost Ins. Co., 653 F. Supp. 2d 526 (D.N.J. 2009) (Wolfson, J.)