Archive for the 'PA – Claims Handling (general)' Category

(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.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date of Decision: February 18, 2020

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

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.

DISAGREEMENT WITH AN EXPERT’S CONCLUSIONS, STANDING ALONE, IS NOT BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insured claimed lost wages resulting from an auto accident that reduced his ability to work full time. The insurer’s examining physician concluded the insured could work full time. The insurer denied the claim.

The insured brought suit. The insurer moved to dismiss all claims. The court analyzed each of the potential claims in the complaint, including a bad faith claim.

The court observed the two elements of statutory bad faith, i.e., a knowing or reckless decision to unreasonably deny benefits. The court also apparently included a showing of self-interest or ill will as a third element. [Per the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2017 Rancosky decision, however, a showing of self-interest or ill will may be evidence of the second bad faith element, but is not itself a third required element.]

The court found that the insured failed to set out a bad faith claim. The complaint alleged “the insurer relied on the findings of its own medical professional that [the insured] was able to return to work full time. While [the insured] might disagree with the doctor’s assessment, that does not mean his insurer acted without a reasonable basis when it denied [the] work loss benefits. Accordingly, the facts plead in the Complaint, without more, fail to show [the] insurer acted in bad faith when it denied his claim.”

The claims were dismissed without prejudice, with leave to amend.

Date of Decision: December 9, 2019

Elansari v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania Case No. 2:19-cv-03404-JDW, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211369, 2019 WL 6698209 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 9, 2019) (Wolson, J.)

A BAD FAITH PLAINTIFF MUST DESCRIBE WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, AND HOW THE ALLEGED BAD FAITH CONDUCT OCCURRED (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insurer denied a property damage claim arising out of a leak in a home heating oil tank making the home uninhabitable. The insured brought suit for breach of contract and bad faith. The carrier moved to dismiss the bad faith claim on the basis it only set out bare bones allegations, and failed under the Twombly/Iqbal pleading standards. The court agreed, but gave the insured leave to amend her complaint.

The court observes that the insured’s complaint fails to “allege facts regarding the terms of her insurance policy, when she submitted a claim to [the insurer], the investigation that [the insurer] performed, or any communications between herself and [the insurer].” Despite the absence of any factual allegations, the insured still claims the inspection was substandard and hasty, the insurer refused to provide additional living expenses contrary to the policy, and her claim was “improperly denied.”

The litany of bare bones conclusory allegations failing to make out a claim includes assertions that the insurer “(1) sent a false denial letter; (2) failed to adequately investigate the loss before claiming it was not covered by the policy; (3) failed to pay a fair and reasonable amount for the claim; (4) asserted policy provisions without a reasonable basis; and (5) misrepresented facts and policy provisions.” These “threadbare recitals” did not allege, e.g., “how [the insurer] failed to investigate and evaluate the claim in a fair manner.”

The court refused to infer bad faith absent facts regarding the insured’s claim itself, and the insurer’s “accompanying investigation, negotiations, or communications in support of the contention that [its] conduct was unreasonable and reckless….” A plaintiff must “describe who, what, where, when, and how the alleged bad faith conduct occurred.”

The insured was given 14 days to amend her complaint.

Date of Decision: December 4, 2019

Biela v. Westfield Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION v. NO. 19-04383, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 209418 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 4, 2019) (Pappert, J.)

 

1. GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS IN DEFINING SCOPE OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH; 2. MOTION TO SEVER AND STAY DENIED; 3. COURT OUTLINES PROPER PRIVILEGE LOG AND CHALLENGE PROCESS (Middle District)

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The good news: The court in Ferguson v. USAA General Indemnity takes on the issue of whether a statutory bad faith claim can survive if the insured’s breach of contract claim fails, and does an historical analysis of the statute and case law to reach a conclusion.

The bad news: The court does not address the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life. As we have observed over the years, Toy requires the denial of a benefit as a necessary predicate for statutory bad faith claims. Yet, numerous courts have applied pre-Toy case law, or cases rooted in pre-Toy case law, in holding that bad faith might exist outside of that context, e.g., solely for unfair claims handling or unreasonable failures to communicate. These courts have not directly addressed the argument that Toy apparently rejected that possibility, and that poor conduct may be evidence of bad faith, but not cognizable bad faith in itself where no benefit is denied.

We are not speaking of the situation where there is a contractually due benefit that the insurer belatedly pays. As Toy itself makes clear, there is little dispute that delay in paying a benefit can still support a bad faith case on the basis that this denies a benefit. Rather, we are speaking of the situation where there is no indemnity or defense of any kind contractually due, and the insurer prevails on the breach of contract count. Attached here is an article addressing Toy’s distinction between bad faith conduct that is necessary to make out a cognizable cause of action, and bad faith conduct that is only evidentiary in nature.

The Ferguson court, and similar cases, are concerned with dishonest claims handling and unreasonable delay even in cases where no coverage was ultimately due. They may want to inhibit poor conduct on the claims handling end that is driven by a presently unsubstantiated hope that there will be no coverage at the end of the day. In the court’s words, statutory bad faith exists to “generally regulate dishonest conduct by insurers….” This dishonest conduct still can be punished even if no coverage is due because “[h]olding otherwise could potentially result in insurers taking the gamble that a denial based on a cursory review will be rescued by a clever trial lawyer.”

Arguably, this interpretation runs counter to the Supreme Court’s decision in Toy, which concludes that there must be a denial of a benefit accompanying such poor claims handling. This reading of Toy implies that dishonest conduct where no coverage is due and no benefit denied is left to regulation by the Insurance Commissioner, not the courts.

In one of the few cases addressing this aspect of Toy, previously summarized on this Blog, another district court states:

Even assuming that the bad faith denial of the benefits claimed by plaintiff was properly alleged in the Complaint, plaintiff’s argument fails because plaintiff does not allege the denial of any benefits within the meaning of the statute. “‘[B]ad faith’ as it concern[s] allegations made by an insured against his insurer ha[s] acquired a particular meaning in the law.” Toy v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 593 Pa. 20, 928 A.2d 186, 199 (Pa. 2007). Courts in Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit have consistently held that “[a] plaintiff bringing a claim under [§ 8371] must demonstrate that an insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured through ‘any frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay proceeds of a policy.'” Wise v. Am. Gen. Life Ins. Co., 459 F.3d 443, 452 (3d Cir. 2006) (emphasis added); see also Nw. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Babayan, 430 F.3d 121, 137 (3d Cir. 2005); Toy, 593 Pa. at 41. None of the “benefits” that defendant allegedly denied plaintiff concern the refusal to pay proceeds under an insurance policy. To the contrary, plaintiff concedes that he “does not allege bad faith for refusal to pay benefits.”

Motion to sever claims and stay discovery denied

As stated, the Ferguson court determined a bad faith claim could proceed independently of the breach of contract claim, even if the breach of contract claim failed. The court reached this conclusion in the context of a motion to stay discovery and sever the breach of contract and bad faith claims. After reaching this conclusion, the court reviewed and denied the motion to sever and stay.

Even if conceptually distinct, the breach of contract and bad faith claims are “significantly intertwined from a practical perspective.” By way of example, the court states that both claims will involve discovery on “the nature of Plaintiffs’ injuries; and … what efforts did the insurer make to investigate Plaintiffs’ injuries.”

Trying to separate the two claims and stay discovery “would potentially create a discovery mess, requiring truncated depositions, interrogatories, and requests for production, only to have them all re-started following the conclusion of the first leg. This risk of judicial inefficiency warrants denial of Defendant’s request.” In sum, “Defendant’s request is, at root, asking the court to manipulate this case’s procedural framework in a way that will make litigation convenient for insurers, which the court will not do.”

This is how to handle the privilege and work product process

The court did observe there might still be legitimate attorney client privilege or work product issues. The court outlined how the parties should address this issue:

“This issue, however, is not properly before the court at this time. Defendant has not filed a protective order, nor has Plaintiff yet moved to compel. While Plaintiffs have requested the court conduct an in camera review of Defendant’s claims file, it will only do so if Plaintiffs show which parts of the claims file they may legally be entitled to. While Plaintiffs’ brief fails to do as much, they were unable to in part because Defendant has not provided an adequate privilege log.”

An adequate privilege log requires the party asserting the privilege to set forth sufficient facts as to each document at issue, and is further required to “establish each element of the privilege or immunity that is claimed. The focus is on the specific descriptive portion of the log, and not on conclusory invocations of the privilege or work-product rule.”

The court instructed the insurer “to provide an amended privilege log supplying some of the underlying factual bases for its privilege and work product claims—but not so much that it effectively discloses any such privileged information—so that Plaintiffs may raise, by brief, the parts of the privilege log they believe Defendant has failed to show are privileged.” After these steps are taken, the “court can then decide whether to conduct an in camera inspection of certain portions of the insurer’s claim file.”

Date of Decision: December 5, 2019

Ferguson v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 1:19-cv-401, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 209579 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 5, 2019) (Rambo, J.)

BAD FAITH REQUIRES DENIAL OF A BENEFIT, EXCEPT IN LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES; NO SEPARATE BREACH OF GOOD FAITH ACTION (Philadelphia federal)

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To paraphrase from the summary below: Though courts have extended the concept of bad faith beyond an insured’s denial of a claim in several limited areas, the essence of a bad faith claim must be the unreasonable and intentional or reckless denial of benefits.

A dispute between the insured and insurer settled for $237,000. During the post-settlement drafting process, the insurer included a term in the settlement agreement making the insured’s mortgagee a payee on the settlement check. The insured objected, but the carrier responded the policy required it to include the payee. It refused to issue the settlement check without the mortgagee and the parties were at loggerheads.

The insured filed a new action against the carrier, seeking to enforce the settlement agreement without the mortgagee’s inclusion. The insured brought a breach of contract claim, as well as a separate breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing in connection with the settlement agreement. The carrier moved to dismiss the good faith and fair dealing count.

The court dismissed that count, following the principle a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing is subsumed within the contract claim, and cannot state a distinct cause of action. “Such subsuming occurs when ‘the actions forming the basis of the breach of contract claim are essentially the same as the actions forming the basis of the bad faith claim.’” Here, both counts arose out of the refusal to remove the mortgagee from the settlement payment.

The court also noted there was no separate tort claim for bad faith in Pennsylvania.

Finally, the court rejected the notion that the good faith count could survive if treated as a statutory bad faith claim. It observed that the case arose from an alleged breach of a settlement agreement, not a violation of the insurance policy. The issue here was the insurer’s including the mortgagee on the payment check, not the denial of a benefit, i.e., the carrier was ready and willing to make a payment under the policy.

As the court states:

Critically, while Plaintiff does claim that [the carrier] “refus[ed] to make payment of a settlement amount within 60 days as required by the policy of insurance,” it is clear from Plaintiff’s own recitation of the facts that what Plaintiff means by “refus[al] to make payment” amounts to Plaintiff’s refusal to accept a settlement check naming the mortgagee as a payee, rather than a denial of benefits under the policy. Though “Courts have extended the concept of ‘bad faith’ beyond an insured’s denial of a claim in several limited areas,” … “the essence of a bad faith claim must be the unreasonable and intentional (or reckless) denial of benefits….” [Emphasis in original] As such, Section 8371 “do[es] not apply to [mere] disputes over contract terms.” … Tellingly, Plaintiff identifies no case in which a Pennsylvania court or a court interpreting Pennsylvania law has found that Section 8371 encompasses the type of settlement dispute at issue here. Count II of Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is therefore dismissed for failure to state a claim.

Date of Decision: November 18, 2019

Purvi, LLC v. Nat’l Fire & Marine Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-4250, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 199469 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 18, 2019) (Beetlestone, J.)

COURT EXCLUDES EXPERT REPORT BEFORE TRIAL, AND REINSTATES BAD FAITH CLAIM THAT HAD BEEN DISMISSED ON THE BASIS OF THAT EXPERT REPORT (Middle District)

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This is a breach of contract and bad faith disability benefits case. The court originally granted the insurer summary judgment on bad faith, based on a defense medical expert report that plaintiff could go back to work in his field (dentistry). Reliance of this report had established the insurer’s reasonableness in denying the claim.

On motions in limine and a Daubert hearing before trial, however, the court ruled the insurer’s same medical expert was not qualified to opine on the insured’s ability to continue working. It excluded this expert’s medical testimony. Soon after, the court reconsidered its earlier bad faith ruling, and reinstated the bad faith claim on plaintiff’s motion. The court stated: “Given that [the expert] can no longer give his expert opinion as an independent medical examiner that [the insured] was no longer disabled, the evidence in the record does not establish as a matter of law that Defendants ‘had a reasonable basis to deny [the insured’s] claim.’”

The insurer then moved for reconsideration, and the court denied that motion, allowing the bad faith claim to proceed.

Further opening the door on bad faith, the insured was now permitted to testify about his personal beliefs on the insured’s intentions during claims handling and the reasonableness of the insurer’s conduct, the insurer’s requiring certain testing on plaintiff, and the reasonableness of how the insurer’s expert conducted that testing. The insured’s credibility could be challenged at trial on these issues. The insured could not testify, however, about his own internet research into the insurer’s claim handling history, “given [the insurer’s] recent reforms to its claim handling procedures.”

For purposes of defending the bad faith claims, the insurer could still use evidence of certain excluded expert opinions, even though these experts were found unqualified for other purposes. These reports remained relevant to show what the insurer relied upon during the denial process, and in “considering [the insured’s] credibility in bringing his disability claim.”

Date of Decision: October 4, 2019

Brugler v. Unum Group, U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 4:15-CV-01031, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172587, 2019 WL 4917922 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 2019) (Brann, J.)

(1) NOT ACCEDING TO INSURED’S DEMAND IS NOT BAD FAITH PER SE (2) THERE IS NO FIDUCIARY DUTY IN UIM CONTEXT AND (3) COMPENSATORY DAMAGES NOT AVAILABLE UNDER BAD FAITH STATUTE (Western District)

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In this UIM bad faith case, the court dismissed the bad faith count with leave to amend, struck all allegations referencing fiduciary duty, and dismissed the claim for compensatory damages under the Bad Faith Statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371.

The insured was injured in a motor vehicle accident. The tortfeasor’s carrier paid his $25,000 policy limits. The insured sought additional recovery under the UIM provisions of his own policy.

The insured provided various medical records, economic reports, and other documents to the carrier, and ultimately demanded $250,000 in UIM policy limits. The insured’s carrier did not meet this demand, and the insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith, as well as loss of consortium for his wife.

The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith count for failure to state a claim. It also moved to strike all averments concerning fiduciary duty, and to dismiss any claim for compensatory damages under the Bad Faith Statute.

The insured fails to plead a plausible bad faith claim

In reviewing the complaint, the court observed that while the list of 15 allegations in the bad faith count was long, it only pleaded “essentially conclusory acts and omissions,” which are insufficient to make out a plausible bad faith cause of action. These flawed allegations included:

a) “failing to objectively and fairly evaluate Plaintiffs’ claim”; b) “failing to objectively and fairly reevaluate Plaintiffs’ claim based on new information”; c) “engaging in dilatory and abusive claims handling”; d) “failing to adopt or implement reasonable standards in evaluating Plaintiffs’ claim”; e) “acting unreasonably and unfairly in response to Plaintiffs’ claim”; f) “not attempting in good faith to effectuate a fair, prompt, and equitable settlement of Plaintiffs’ claim in which the Defendant’s liability under the policy had become reasonably clear”; g) “subordinating the interests of its insured and those entitled under its insureds’ coverage to its own financial monetary interests”; h) “failing to promptly offer reasonable payment to the Plaintiffs”; i) “failing reasonably and adequately to investigate Plaintiffs’ claim”; j) “failing reasonably and adequately to evaluate or review the medical documentation in Defendant’s possession”; k) “violating the fiduciary duty owed to the Plaintiffs”; l) “acting unreasonably and unfairly by withholding underinsured motorist benefits justly due and owing to the Plaintiffs”; m) “failing to make an honest, intelligent, and objective settlement offer”; n) “causing Plaintiffs to expend money on the presentation of their claim”; and o) “causing the plaintiffs to bear the stress and anxiety associated with litigation.”

Beyond these conclusory allegations, the bad faith count was “devoid of facts explaining ‘who, what, where, when, and how’ Defendant failed to handle Plaintiffs’ UIM claim in good faith.”

The court did scour the complaint for facts. However, those facts did “not detail which of Defendant’s acts or omissions constitute bad faith, separately or in conjunction with others.” All those facts amounted to was that the insured was (1) injured in a motor vehicle accident, (2) the tortfeasor’s liability limit did not cover all of the insured’s injury claims, (3) the insured submitted his claim to his UIM carrier, and (4) the claim made has not been paid.

“While such facts might be sufficient to plead a claim for breach of contract, they are insufficient to support a claim of bad faith under the Pennsylvania statute. Simply put, requiring the Court to infer bad faith through Defendant’s ‘failure to immediately accede to a demand [under an insurance policy] cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.’”

Plaintiff’s citation to documents in his pleadings did not cure this problem. These documents simply show there may be some merit to the UIM claim, but do not show the “where, when and how” of a bad faith claim. These documents do not show how the denial was unreasonable or that that the allegedly unreasonable denial was knowing or reckless.

Again, the complaint simply amounted to an argument that bad faith should be inferred from the carrier’s refusing the insured’s demand. This is not enough.

There is no fiduciary duty in the UIM context

The court also struck all references in the complaint to breaches of fiduciary duty. The court rejected the notion that an insurer bears a fiduciary duty to the insured in all circumstances. Rather, while there may be a fiduciary duty in the context of third party claims against the insured, there is no such duty in first party claims, such as UIM claims.

Compensatory damages cannot be recovered under the Bad Faith Statute

Pennsylvania’s Bad Faith Statute only allows for recovery of punitive damages, interest, attorney’s fees, and costs. It essentially provides for additional remedies other than compensatory damages, which must be recovered under other theories, principally breach of contract.

Date of Decision: September 9, 2019

Ream v. Nationwide Property & Casualty Insurance Co., NAIC, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:19-cv-00768, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152870, 2019 WL 4254059 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 9, 2019) (Hornak, J.)

FACTS MAKING OUT A POSSIBLE BAD FAITH CLAIM DID NOT SET OUT A PLAUSIBLE BAD FAITH CLAIM ABSENT SPECULATION (Middle District)

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Judge Caputo dismissed a UIM based bad faith count, but with leave to amend the complaint.

  1. He found these averments to be conclusory:

Failing objectively and fairly to evaluate Plaintiff’s claim;

Failing objectively and fairly to reevaluate Plaintiff’s claim based on new information;

Failing reasonably and adequately to investigate Plaintiff’s claim; and

Failing reasonably and adequately to evaluate or review the medical documentation in Defendant’s possession.

  1. He found these averments “regarding how Defendant handled the claim after receipt [to be] conclusory without additional factual support that would inform the court why Defendants actions are unreasonable”:

Engaging in dilatory and abusive claims handling;

Acting unreasonable and unfairly in response to Plaintiff’s claim;

Subrogating the interests of its insured and those entitled under its insured’s coverage to its own financial monetary interests;

Failing to promptly offer reasonable payments to the Plaintiff;

Acting unreasonably and unfairly by withholding underinsured motorist benefits justly due and owing to the Plaintiff; and

Failing to make an honest, intelligent, and objective settlement offer.

  1. He stated that the following averment was conclusory, circular, and proved nothing:

Not attempting in good faith to effectuate a fair, prompt, and equitable settlement of Plaintiff’s claim, in which the Defendant’s liability under the policy had become reasonably clear.

  1. He found the allegations that Defendant failed to adopt “reasonable standards” and subordinated “the interestsof its insured” to their own financial monetary interest to be conclusory in the absence of supporting facts.

Judge Caputo has previously described the method of stripping away conclusory allegations to determine a bad faith claim’s plausibility under federal pleading standards. A summary of his analysis can be found here.

Following the method of stripping away conclusory allegations in determining plausibility, Judge Caputo found here that the complaint simply alleged the following facts: an accident, the tortfeasor’s willingness to pay policy limits, the insurer’s agreement to that payment, the insured’s written demand for UIM benefits supported by a medical report, and the insurer’s failing to settle or resolve the UIM claim. These facts alone did not support the elements of a bad faith claim, i.e., unreasonable denial of benefits with a knowing or reckless disregard that the basis to deny benefits was unreasonable.

The court found that “[w]hile such assertions perhaps suggest that a bad faith claim is possible, they do not allow for any non-speculative inference that a finding of bad faith is plausible.”

Judge Caputo did permit the insured to amend the complaint, with the reminder that if the insured “elects to do so, the amended complaint must set forth facts, not merely conclusory statements, to support a bad faith claim.”

Date of Decision: August 14, 2019

Peters v. Geico Advantage Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania NO. 19-CV-1119, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137087 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 14, 2019) (Caputo, J.)