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

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.)

 

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.)

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.

A LOW BUT REASONABLE ESTIMATE IS NOT BAD FAITH (Third Circuit)

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The Third Circuit affirmed Middle District Judge Robert Mariani’s grant of summary judgment to the insurer on a bad faith claim. A summary of the trial court opinion can be found here.

In this UIM case, the tortfeasor paid $95,000 out of a $100,000 policy. The insurer initially valued the claim at $110,000 to $115,000 and offered $10,000 to settle (after deducting the $100,000 for the tortfeasor’s policy). The insured demanded the full $200,000 UIM policy limits, and filed suit when her demand was not met. The insurer upped its offer to $50,000, and the parties finally agreed to a high low arbitration ($200,000/$10,000). The arbitrator found the “total claim was worth $306,345, and calculated [the insurer’s] responsibility under the UIM policy to be $160,786.78.”

Insured’s Responses to Undisputed Facts Found Inadequate

First, the appeals court rejected the argument that the trial court improperly accepted certain of the insurer’s statements of undisputed fact as undisputed. The insured failed to set forth detailed facts contradicting the insurer’s specifically described undisputed facts. Rather, she generally denied the insurer’s undisputed facts and responded with facts that did not actually go to the issues presented in the insurer’s statements of fact. The Third Circuit found these failings amounted to admissions.

[This is a clear warning to parties opposing summary judgment that simply denying an alleged undisputed fact, without also setting out specific facts of record directly casting doubt on the putative undisputed facts, will result in an admission.]

Next, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s discretion to disregard an additional 289 counterstatements of fact that went beyond the insured’s responsive paragraphs to the insurer’s allegations of undisputed facts. Under local district court rules, the trial court had broad discretion in reviewing such supplementary counterstatements of fact, and determined they were outside the scope of the evidentiary issues presented in the insurer’s statement of undisputed facts.

Low but Reasonable Estimate not Bad Faith

Finally, the Third Circuit observed that “[w]hile successful bad faith claims do not need to show fraudulent behavior, negligence or bad judgment will not support a bad faith claim. … Nor will ‘a low but reasonable estimate of the insured’s losses.’”

The Third Circuit found “[t]he District Court properly applied this standard and granted summary judgment because the undisputed facts in the record show that [the insurer] had a reasonable basis for contesting [the insured’s] UIM claim. The record shows that (1) a large portion of [the insured’s] valuation of her claim was attributable to potential future surgery, (2) an independent medical examination disputed [her] claim that she needed the future surgery, (3) [she] had additional health coverage that would defray the cost of future surgery, and (4) [the carrier] believed [the insured] was exaggerating her symptoms in her deposition during the underlying UIM litigation.”

Even taking any remaining factual disputes in the insured’s favor, she could not demonstrate the absence of a reasonable basis to deny benefits. As there was a reasonable basis to deny benefits, the court did not have to address the second bad faith element of knowing or reckless disregard.

Date of Decision: November 27, 2019

Rau v. Allstate Fire & Casualty Insurance Co., U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 19-1078, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 35560 (3d Cir. Nov. 27, 2019) (Chagares, Jordan, Restrepo, JJ.)

COURT ALLOWS FOR POSSIBILITY OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH, EVEN WHERE NO BENEFIT DUE – BUT STILL DENIES CLAIM (Western District)

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The court determined no coverage was due under a policy exclusion in this water damage case. Thus, there could be no statutory bad faith claim on the basis coverage was improperly denied.

However, even though no benefit was denied under the policy, the court concluded that denial of a benefit was only one type of statutory bad faith. Under this view, failures to investigate facts, communicate with insureds, or do proper legal research could still create actionable bad faith claims even if no duty to indemnify or defend exists under the policy. [Note: As this Blog has set forth on many occasions, this view is questionable, i.e., the denial of a benefit is a sine qua non of statutory bad faith, and poor investigation or communication are only evidence of bad faith where a benefit has been denied, and cannot be a stand-alone basis for bad faith claims where no benefit is denied.]

Even under this broader standard, the court granted the insurer summary judgment. The insured asserted inadequate investigation bad faith concerning the cause of water damage in this case. It alleged the investigation was too brief, the inspector did not investigate all areas of the property, and did not communicate with the insured about the loss. The plaintiff admitted the adjuster did investigate a burst public water supply pipe from which all of the alleged property damage originated.

The court found because the policy excluded losses originating from a burst water supply pipe, there was in fact no need for any further investigation. “Under these circumstances, any additional investigation would not have changed the outcome of [the] decision to deny [the insured’s] claim.” Thus, there was insufficient “evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] performed an inadequate investigation or otherwise acted in bad faith in its handling [the] claim.” [Note: It is clear that the policy’s coverage language defining benefits due informed the court’s decision on what constituted a reasonable investigation.]

Thus, summary judgment was granted on the bases that there was no improper benefit denial, and no bad faith investigation.

Date of Decision: November 21, 2019

Sypherd Enterprises, Inc. v. Auto-Owners Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania 2022102:18-CV-00141-MJH, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 202210 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 2019) (Horan, J.)

It is interesting to compare this case to the statement of principles governing actionable statutory bad faith claim in last week’s post on Judge Beetlestone’s Purvi decision.

LONG INVESTIGATION REASONABLY FOLLOWING UP ON “RED FLAGS” IS NOT BAD FAITH DELAY (Western District)

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Plaintiff’s house burned down. Before ultimately paying full benefits, the insurer conducted a lengthy, detailed, and wide-ranging arson investigation. The insured brought a breach of contract action for the delayed payment, and a bad faith action alleging there was no evidence to support the arson investigation. The court granted the insurer summary judgment on both claims.

First, “where the insurance company has paid the benefits under the policy, the insured cannot maintain an action for breach of contract.” Payment “negates any breach of contract action,” where the insurer has paid full policy limits, and there is no evidence of a failure to compensate. Even if there was a payment delay, there were no damages from that delay in this case.

On the bad faith claim, the court recognized an insurer can conduct investigations of questionable claims without acting in bad faith. “Where an insurer sees ‘red flags’ that cause concern of insurance fraud and prompt an investigation, the insurer has a reasonable basis for investigation, and is therefore not liable for claims of bad faith.” Red flags can include, e.g., (1) an insured’s financial motive in seeking the insurance proceeds, such as debts exceeding income; (2) a fire marshal’s investigating for arson; and (3) an insurer’s investigation revealing that the fire could not have started as the fire department initially believed.

In this case, there were red flags sufficient to warrant the insurer’s lengthy and multi-faceted investigation, and there was no actionable bad faith.

The court further observed that while payment delay can be the basis for bad faith, or a bad faith factor, such delay is only relevant to bad faith where the insurer “knew that it had no basis to deny the claimant.” In addition, “[w]hile delay in paying a claim is relevant to determining an insurer’s bad faith, it is not dispositive, and does not, on its own, ‘necessarily constitute bad faith.’” Moreover, “even if the insurer is solely responsible for the delay, as long as the delay is due to the insurer’s need to investigate further, or even to negligence, there is no bad faith.”

Here, the insured did not produce clear and convincing evidence to establish the insurer knew its payment delay was baseless. To the contrary, the record showed the insurer reasonably believed there were potential grounds to deny the insured’s claim warranting further investigation. The court found the insurer had a reasonable basis to conduct a lengthy investigation, and reasonably pursued all avenues of investigation as new information arose, until it decided to pay the claim after all of those road were finally traveled.

Date of Decision: October 21, 2019

Merrone v. Allstate Vehicle & Property Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Case No. 3:18-cv-193, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181450 (W. D. Pa. Oct. 21, 2019) (Gibson, J.)

REASONABLENESS OF INVESTIGATION IS NOT SOLELY DETERMINED BY THE LENGTH OF TIME USED BY THE ADJUSTER TO REACH A CONCLUSION ON COVERAGE (Middle District)

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Through an unusual set of circumstances, the insureds’ electricity service at a vacation home was terminated by third parties, unbeknownst to the insureds. This led to the heating system’s not functioning, which in turn led to frozen pipes bursting, and significant water damage to their home. Their insurer denied coverage under a policy provision that required the insureds to take reasonable care in maintaining heat while the property was unoccupied, or in shutting down the water system.

The insureds brought claims for breach of contract, negligence, and bad faith. The negligence claim was dismissed under the gist of the action doctrine, as the claim was based on the breach of an insurance contract and any duties arose out of that contract. The breach of contract claim was dismissed as being initiated after the one-year contract period for bringing suit, expressly required in the insurance policy.

The court analyzed the bad faith came under both the common law and Pennsylvania’s Bad Faith Statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371. One difference between the two claims is that common law bad faith permits recovery of compensatory and consequential damages, while statutory bad faith is limited to interest, punitive damages, legal fees and costs.

In this case, the common law bad faith claim was time barred, being subject to the same analysis as the breach of contract claim.

The statutory bad faith claim was based upon an allegedly unreasonable failure to investigate the facts as to the history of the termination of the insureds’ electric service as the cause of the loss. The insureds argued that the adjuster’s single day visit to “the property was insufficient to ascertain the information necessary to determine the cause of the damage, particularly in light of the adjuster’s failure to contact [other relevant parties] to determine what events led to the transfer and termination of electric service at the [insureds’] Pennsylvania vacation home.” The court, however, granted the insurer summary judgment on this issue.

While the “adjuster may not have pursued an investigation into the ultimate cause of the property damage to the extent the [insureds] desired, a single, one-day visit to the home was sufficient for the adjuster to ascertain that the property was vacant for an extended period of time, that electric service to the home had been shut off for a period of months resulting in a failure to maintain heat inside the home over an extended period of time, and that the cause of property damage was a freeze out. This information, together with that gathered by claims handlers—including, in particular, the [insureds’] failure to note over the course of several months that they were no longer being billed for electric service—was sufficient … to reasonably determine that the [insureds] had failed to use reasonable care to maintain heat in the home while it was vacant for several months of winter weather. Stated another way, we find that, based on the evidence adduced by the parties on summary judgment, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, no reasonable jury could find that [the insurer’s] investigation was inadequate or that its denial of coverage was frivolous or unfounded.

Date of Decision: September 27, 2019

Pager v. Metro. Edison, U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:17-cv-00934, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 166052 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 27, 2019) (Saporito, M.J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM MAY PROCEED ON SOME CLAIMS HANDLING ISSUES, BUT OTHERS FAIL TO MAKE OUT A CASE (Western District)

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In this UIM bad faith case, Judge Conner, sitting in the Western District for this matter, closely analyzed the insurer’s investigation and claims handling in allowing the bad faith case to proceed. While agreeing with the carrier on a few distinct bad faith sub-issues, summary judgment was denied on the bad faith and breach of contract claims.

The insured was a tetraplegic prior to being hit by the tortfeasors’ vehicle. She made claims that there were new injuries and an exacerbation of her existing autonomic dysreflexia (AD). The carrier assigned a senior adjuster, and offered $20,000 on a $1 Million policy.

The key underlying fact is that a claims adjuster, with no medical training, was making critical decisions based on medical reports and records, or an absence thereof, without sufficiently consulting with doctors or someone with medical training who had experience with AD. The insured provided medical records and a report from her own doctor, a specialist in spinal cord injuries, setting out the basis of her claims of new injuries and the details of the exacerbated AD. The adjuster did have access to a consulting nurse, but the nurse had no AD experience, and her advice to obtain an IME allegedly was disregarded.

The adjuster never sought a statement under oath or obtained an IME, despite the consulting nurse’s recommendation to obtain an IME. There was a hot dispute of fact over whether the adjuster orally requested an IME from the insured’s attorney. After finally obtaining all medical records, the carrier offered $25,000 on the UIM claim, and the insured subsequently sued for breach of contract and bad faith. After litigation started, the carrier did obtain an IME. The carrier’s IME concluded that any AD symptoms were the result of preexisting injuries, and not the motor vehicle accident at issue.

Judge Conner gave close analysis to each distinct aspect of the insured’s bad faith claim.

  1. There must be a meaningful investigation.

An “insurance company must conduct a meaningful investigation, which may include an in-person interview, examination under oath, medical authorizations, and/or independent medical examinations.” “Both federal and Pennsylvania courts have indicated that failure to timely obtain an IME is probative of bad faith. … Common sense dictates that an IME is particularly insightful when the insured suffers from a rare, complex, and unique preexisting condition.”

Again, this was summary judgment, so the facts were taken in the insured’s favor as non-movant. That said, it is undisputed there was no pre-suit IME, that the insured had a long medical history, and that her expert doctor stated the accident exacerbated the AD. Moreover, the carrier’s own nursing consultant had recommended an IME, which advice was not followed. The court was concerned “that an adjuster with no medical training, tasked with evaluating a unique medical condition for an insured with a unique medical history, ignored a medical professional’s recommendation.” “Whether this decision was made in bad faith is an issue of genuine dispute, but [the insured] has put forth enough clear and convincing evidence that [the carrier’s] decision stemmed from recklessness rather than mere negligence.”

  1. The court rejects a “harmless error” argument.

The carrier argued that even if it improperly failed to take a pre-suit IME, it did so post-suit and its doctor found no claim existed because all symptoms were the result of a pre-existing condition. The court rejected this theory.

“To begin with, the court is unaware of a harmless error doctrine in Pennsylvania’s statutory bad-faith jurisprudence, and [the carrier] does not point to one. This argument also misconceives our inquiry. We must review the process by which [the carrier] made its decisions and determine whether they were supported by a reasonable basis. That process need not be ‘flawless,’ but it must be thorough enough to provide … a ‘reasonable basis’ for declining to settle [the] claim. Whether [the carrier] had a ‘reasonable basis’ during its investigation is in dispute because [it] did not seek a pre-suit IME. This, coupled with [the consulting nurse’s] disregarded recommendation that [the carrier] obtain an IME, is enough clear and convincing evidence to suggest that [the] settlement strategy lacked a reasonable basis. That [the] post-suit report confirms [the carrier’s] pre-suit determination does not change whether [the carrier] acted in bad faith in making that determination.”

  1. The insurer’s selecting a doctor to conduct an IME does not by itself show bias.

The insured asserted that the doctor selected to perform the IME was improperly biased. The court observed, “[b]ias in selecting a physician to conduct an IME may be relevant to bad faith, but a baseless allegation of bias alone will not suffice.” The insured did not bring out any evidence to support her bias claim. This naked assertion was not sufficient: “[I]t is clear that [the carrier] chose a physician who would not be independent but instead would be biased in his opinions regarding the extent of [the] alleged injuries and complaints as well as the cause of same.” That the doctor did “prior work for insurance companies does not alone establish unlawful bias or bad faith, and [the insured] does not cite on-point authority to show otherwise.”

  1. The court rejects the carrier’s argument that chose not to take the IME to avoid acting in bad faith.

In its final point on the IME issue, the court states: “In a last-ditch effort to combat [the insured’s] claim, [the carrier] maintains that an IME is not required because ‘insurers have been sued for bad faith when they require insureds submit to IME’s to obtain benefits.’ (Doc. 91 at 14 (citing Sayles v. Allstate Ins. Co., 260 F. Supp. 3d 427, 432 (M.D. Pa. 2017)). That may be true in a vacuum, but Sayles arose in a different context: there, the insurer demanded that the insured submit to an IME without seeking leave from the court in violation of Pennsylvania law. Sayles, 260 F. Supp. 3d at 432, 434-38. [The carrier] did not demand (or request) an IME here. Thus, Sayles is unhelpful.”

  1. A failure to consider relevant information could support a bad faith claim.

The court found that whether the carrier “adequately considered [the insured’s] complete medical profile is a material issue, and the evidence on this point is in genuine dispute.” The record did include the adjuster’s testimony that she considered the insured’s medical report, but relied more heavily on the actual medical records. The court stated: “At first blush this sounds reasonable. But [the adjuster] is not a medical professional and is not qualified to decide if a treating doctor’s narrative is irrelevant to an insured’s medical condition. No IME was conducted to place these records in context despite the suggestion of [the nursing consultant]—a medical professional. [The adjuster] may not have ignored facts per se, but it is difficult for an adjuster to favor some evidence (medical records) over others (medical reports) without professional expertise or the findings of an IME.” Thus, the insured had put on sufficient evidence to go forward on the argument that the insurer “based its settlement strategy on an incomplete medical picture.”

  1. The insured did not have a case for bad faith delay.

“To show bad-faith delay, the insured must establish ‘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 observed that “[t]he process for resolving an insurance claim can be slow and frustrating … but a long claims-processing period does not constitute bad faith by itself….”

In this case, the insured cause some of the delay, “which leans against a finding of bad faith.” The court further observed the four-month time delay between the insured’s last contact with the carrier and filing suit, and rejected the argument of delays in connection with transmitting records, the timing of the IME report and the IME itself, and the carrier’s filing various motions in the case.

After finding the bad faith case could go forward, the court also denied the carrier’s summary judgment on the breach of contract claims, under the law of the case theory and because there was a dispute of fact over whether the AD exacerbation resulted from accident or pre-existing condition.

September 26, 2019

Baum v. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:16-CV-623, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164736 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 26, 2019) (Conner, J.)

1. POSSIBLE BAD FAITH FOR IMPROPER RESCISSION AND UNREASONABLY INADEQUATE INVESTIGATION, BUT 2. NO BAD FAITH FOR ALLEGED VIOLATIONS OF THE UIPA OR UCSP REGULATIONS, OR FOR ALLEGEDLY SWITCHING DENIAL THEORIES (Western District)

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The insured purchased various life insurance coverages for her son. She answered no to questions about whether he had any chronic health problems requiring periodic medical care. The terms chronic and periodic were undefined, as to, e.g., what kinds of illness fell under this question and what constituted “periodic” treatment. She answered no. Medical records subsequently showed the son some had gastric issues, lymph issues, and had been in rehab for marijuana dependency on two occasions.

The son was shot in the head and killed. The insurer denied coverage and invoked rescission. The insurer took the position that the mother had failed to disclose that he had chronic conditions that required periodic medical care.

The mother brought claims for breach of contract and bad faith. The insurer sought summary judgment on the bad faith claims. During discovery, the insurer took the position that the marijuana use, along with lymph and gastric problems met the definition of chronic illnesses needing periodic treatment, though later appeared to back off this position on the lymph and gastric allegations on periodic treatment grounds.

The court observed that the first bad faith element, concerning the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the insurer’s benefit denial, is objective. Thus, if a reasonable basis exists for an insurer’s decision, even if the insurer did not rely on that reason, there is no bad faith as a matter of law. It then described the other bad faith elements, and the burden of proof requiring clear and convincing evidence.

There were four types of bad faith claims at issue in the case:

  1. Refusal to pay insurance proceeds and rescission of the Policies.

The court found that the jury could conclude rescission was unreasonable in determining the son’s marijuana, lymph, and gastric allegations, were reasonable bases to rescind. The court further found that rescinding based on the lymph or gastric issues could go to the jury on intent/recklessness because there was apparently no periodic treatment in the record.

As to the marijuana issue, the mother explained to the insurer why she did not think the son’s stints in rehab constituted periodic treatment. Rescission required a knowing misrepresentation. A jury could find it reckless to conclude that this was a knowing misrepresentation on the mother’s part.

In sum, the bad faith claims could proceed on the rescission issue.

  1. Lack of investigation into the facts regarding the son’s alleged medical conditions.

The court allowed a bad faith claim for an unreasonably inadequate investigation to proceed as well. First, the court stated that an unreasonably inadequate investigation could be a separate ground for bad faith. It noted, however, while the law does require a thorough investigation, that investigation need not be flawless.

The insurer took the position that obtaining medical records was sufficient. The mother argued this was not enough. She set out six detailed steps the insurer failed to take in further drilling down beyond the medical records to get full answers. “While the Court agree[d] that not all the disputed facts identified by Plaintiff suggest bad faith, there is enough evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that Defendant failed to conduct a reasonable investigation into the factual circumstances underlying Plaintiff’s insurance claims.”

        3. Failure to comply with a Pennsylvania statute and regulation.

The mother also cited failure to comply with specific sections of the Unfair Insurance Practices Act and Unfair Claims Settlement Practices regulations in connection with the manner of rescission. Assuming arguendo these sections were applicable, the court found the insurer’s claim handling, in how it formally went about rescinding the policies, did not violate those sections.

Moreover, even assuming the UIPA and UCSP were violated, “a violation of the UIPA does not constitute per se bad faith under section 8371.” In this case, “the rescission letter’s language is not sufficient for a reasonable jury to find statutory bad faith, as the letter does not suggest unreasonable behavior on the part of Defendant and there is no evidence that Defendant knew of or recklessly disregarded any unreasonable behavior. At most, any violations of these provisions suggest that Defendant may have been negligent in the preparation of the rescission letter.”

        4.  No bad faith for alleged theory switching.

“Finally, Plaintiff argues that Defendant’s constantly changing bases for rescinding the Policies, as well as Defendant’s failure to reference gastroenteritis and lymphadenopathy in its affirmative defenses, are evidence of Defendant’s bad faith. The Court disagrees. There is no evidence that Defendant has constantly changed its basis for rescission—instead, Defendant has asserted since it sent the rescission letter that the rescission was based on misrepresentations about [the son’s] medical history in the applications. And the fact that the specific medical conditions that Defendant claims Plaintiff omitted have changed as the parties engaged in discovery, without more, is simply not evidence of bad faith.”

Thus, the motion was granted in part and denied in part.

Date of Decision: August 27, 2019

Horvath v. Globe Life & Accident Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Case No. 3:18-cv-84, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 144933 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 27, 2019) (Gibson, J.)