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

WHETHER DELAY AMOUNTED TO BAD FAITH MUST GO TO JURY (Middle District)

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Middle District Judge Robert Mariani denied the insurer’s summary judgment motion on this UIM bad faith claim.

The court went into a lengthy recitation of the relevant facts, as well as a lengthy summary of statutory bad faith case law in Pennsylvania (though not citing the Rancosky decision). For immediate purposes, we focus solely on the court’s conclusions about whether a delay could amount to reckless indifference.

There was an undisputed delay in opening a file and starting the claim handling process, which the insurer argued amounted to negligence at most. Negligence cannot be the basis for statutory bad faith in Pennsylvania. The insurer cited cases where an internal mix-up in opening a file caused some delay. The court found it could not make a factual determination at this point attributing the delay solely to this level of negligence.

The court cited to facts from which a jury could find recklessness by clear and convincing evidence. The insured’s counsel wrote to the insurer making a claim, but no file was opened and no response was sent to counsel. Counsel sent another letter making a demand and asking for documents. Again, counsel received no response and still no UIM claim file was opened. Only after the insured called directly and asked to speak to an adjuster was a file opened and an adjuster assigned. Between then and the time of suit, the claim log showed no activity concerning the UIM claim. This all occurred over a six month period.

The court found this lack of responsiveness and activity over a six-month period could amount to reckless indifference, and should go to a jury to determine negligence vs. recklessness.

As the bad faith claim was allowed to proceed, the court did not address other allegations concerning alleged bad faith claims handling once the file was being actively adjusted.

Date of Decision: March 11, 2020

Angeli v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:18-CV-703, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43159 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 11, 2020) (Mariani, J.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date of Decision: February 10, 2020

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

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

DOES TOY V. METROPOLITAN LIFE PROVIDE BINDING PRECEDENT REQUIRING A DENIAL OF BENEFITS FOR COURTS APPLYING PENNSYLVANIA LAW ON THE SCOPE OF STATUTORY BAD FAITH (Western District)

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Like the recent Middle District Ferguson decision, the opinion in this case involves good news and bad news. First, the court addresses head on whether statutory bad faith must be predicated on a denial of benefits, or can be independently sustained based upon a variety of poor claims handling practices. That’s good for those seeking clarity on this issue. The bad news is that, like Ferguson, this opinion never addresses head on the 2007 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

As we have set forth many times on this Blog, the Toy decision strongly appears to require the denial of a benefit as a predicate to bringing a statutory bad faith claim, meaning a refusal to pay proceeds due under the policy, unreasonably delaying payment of proceeds due under the policy, or refusing to pay for a defense due under the policy. Under Toy, other types of poor conduct in claims handling go to evidence of statutory bad faith, without being actionable bad faith standing alone. See this 2014 article for a more detailed discussion.

In the present case, an excess carrier paid $19,000,000 to settle a malpractice suit, contingent on its right to recoup that payment. The insured objected. The insurer brought suit to recover the money, and the insured counterclaimed for breach of contract, common law contractual bad faith, statutory bad faith, and for a declaratory judgment.

The court denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims, and the insurer brought a motion for reconsideration on whether the bad faith claim was adequately pleaded, and whether the damage claims were too speculative and contingent to stand. Both motions were unsuccessful. [We only address the bad faith claim.]

The court focused on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2017 Rancosky decision to address the issue of whether an actionable statutory bad faith claims requires “the plaintiff must allege that the insurer has denied benefits under the policy. … [and] that only either a refusal to pay benefits or a delay in paying benefits that becomes an effective denial can constitute a denial of benefits sufficient to state a claim under § 8371.” The court points out that the Rancosky majority did not address that issue, but Justice Wecht’s Rancosky concurrence “listed several types of conduct, including poor claims-handling, a failure to respond to the insured, and other similar conduct, which could give rise to a § 8371 claim and that list is broader than a refusal or delay in paying benefits.” Although the majority had not adopted that concurrence, because the majority did not expressly refute the concurrence, the District Court “remain[ed] convinced that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, if confronted with the issue … would hold that [the insured] had stated a claim.”

[Note: Per the above comment, however, it strongly appears that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did address the issue in 2007. A review of the carrier’s brief indicates that it argued Toy stood for the proposition “that ‘bad faith’ under § 8371 is strictly limited to ‘those actions an insurer took when called upon to perform its contractual obligations of defense and indemnification or payment of a loss.’” The carrier further argued that Rancosky did not overrule or limit this principle, and if anything reaffirmed it. The District Court clearly rejected the notion that Rancosky limited statutory bad faith claims to the denial of benefits, but never addressed whether Toy did so.]

Thus, the motion for reconsideration was denied. The court held that the insured stated a claim by alleging “poor claims-handling, a failure to respond to the insured, and other similar conduct, which could give rise to a § 8371 claim,” wholly independent of any refusal to pay or delay in paying benefits.

Date of Decision: January 23, 2020

Ironshore Specialty Insurance Co. v. Conemaugh Health System, U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania CASE NO. 3:18-cv-153, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11060 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2020) (Gibson, J.)

Two recent examples of cases finding that statutory bad faith claims must be based upon a denial of benefits are Judge Dubois’ 2019 Buck decision, and Judge Kearney’s 2019 Boring decision. In her 2019 Purvi decision, Judge Beetlestone states that, with limited exceptions, “the essence of a bad faith claim must be the unreasonable and intentional (or reckless) denial of benefits….” (Emphasis in original).

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.

COMMON PLEAS JUDGE FINDS BAD FAITH FOR (1) RELYING ON UNWARRANTED RED FLAGS; (2) REACHING COVERAGE CONCLUSIONS UNSUPPORTED BY ACTUAL FACTS; (3) UNREASONABLE INTERPRETATION OF POLICY’S COVERAGE LANGUAGE; (4) DRAWING UNWARRANTED CONCLUSIONS FROM EXPERT REPORT; (5) FAILING TO INVESTIGATE FULLY; (6) VIOLATING UIPA (Common Pleas Lehigh)

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Today’s post summarizes Lehigh County Judge Melissa Pavlack’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in this breach of contract and bad faith case.

The Court’s Factual Findings

The insureds’ car was stolen. It was recovered, but with considerable damage. The insureds’ license plate was replaced with a stolen plate. The court found that the thieves never intended to return the vehicle. The insureds sought coverage based on the theft and vandalism, relying on policy language covering theft, larceny, vandalism, and malicious mischief.

The court found the insureds were not involved in any way with the theft or vandalism, nor was there any fraud on their part. The car was deemed a total loss, and valued at around $13,000. There were additional costs for hauling and storage, bringing the total claim to approximately $17,000.

The insurer denied the claim, citing insufficient evidence the car had been stolen. It refused to consider a separate vandalism claim because the damages arose out of an alleged theft. Thus, the insurer did not investigate the vandalism claim, and the denial letter never addressed the vandalism claim’s merits. The insurer never cited any policy exclusions applying to the vandalism claims. There was also no denial based on fraud.

The insurer’s investigation included a claim’s adjuster and supervisor, a fraud investigator, an appraiser, an appraisal report, an investigator and three investigator reports, an examination under oath over the telephone and in person, document requests, and a site visit to the loss location. At trial, the adjuster could not recall which of the insured’s statements under oath led to the claim denial.

The investigator reported to the carrier that one of the insureds was uncooperative because she did not bring unredacted tax returns and cell phone records to her examination under oath. Relying on this alleged lack of cooperation, the claims supervisor wrote to the insured that she had failed to cooperate by not bringing these tax returns and records, and failed to cooperate with the insurer’s investigation. However, the investigator was not aware that another of the insurer’s representatives had actually instructed the insured to bring redacted copies of the tax returns to the examination under oath, which she did.

As to other document issues allegedly evidencing a failure to cooperate, it was made clear during the examination under oath that the insured was a medical professional. She could not simply produce her phone records without violating HIPAA. She attempted to cooperate during the examination under oath by showing some messages in her phone from the days in question; but the adjuster was also concerned about HIPAA, and was hesitant to proceed with looking at her phone. Further, the court found the insured could not respond to the insurer’s request for the car purchase documents because these had been stolen from the glove compartment.

Moreover, in contrast to assertions that the insureds failed to cooperate, the court found that the insurer’s fraud investigator conceded the insureds had cooperated, and had provided documents requested in the manner requested.

As to the allegation there was insufficient evidence of theft, the insurer relied upon its expert report. The expert opined there was no forced entry, and that the car only could have been moved using a key. The court found (1) the insurance policy did not require forced entry as a condition precedent to establish theft, and (2) the car could be moved without a key. Further, the insurer’s fraud investigator testified that cars can be stolen without noticeable signs of forced entry, and there was other testimony to the same effect. The court also found that the fraud investigator never communicated with the claim adjuster that forced entry was not required to steal a car.

In sum, the court found these conclusions (forced entry and use of a key) were not reasonable bases to deny the very existence of a theft.

Most significantly, the expert only opined the car was not stolen by means of forced entry, and that a key had to have been used. Whether or not these conclusions were correct was irrelevant in the court’s view, because the expert never opined the car was not stolen. Thus, it was an error to make the leap that the car was not stolen, as it could have been stolen by some means other than forced entry, or could have been moved without a key.

There was Coverage for Theft, Vandalism, and Malicious Mischief

In addressing the breach of contract claim, the court looked at the policy’s plain language. The policy expressly covered theft, larceny, vandalism, and malicious mischief. There were no applicable exclusions in this case, so the court only had to interpret the coverage language.

The court looked at the dictionary definition of these terms, rather than any criminal statutes or case law defining vandalism, theft, etc. It concluded the facts of the case fell within these coverage terms, and the insureds claims were covered. As to bad faith, it was unreasonable to conclude the facts at hand did not fall within the policy’s plain and unambiguous language. Further, the court found the insurer’s conduct unreasonable in failing to consider coverage for vandalism and malicious mischief when denying the claims.

Court uses Unfair Insurance Practices Act and Unfair Claim Settlement Practices Regulations as Standards

The court cited (1) Unfair Claim Settlement Practice regulations (UCSP), 31 Pa. Code § 146.4, on obligations to fully disclose coverages and benefits; and (2) the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA), 40 Pa.S.A. § 1171.5(a)(10)(iv), on failing to reasonably explain a claim denial.

The court cited these UCSP and UIPA provisions in the context of the first bad faith prong, lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits. The court then observed the insurer had completely failed to consider the vandalism and malicious mischief claims covered under the policy. This supported the existence of bad faith, though it is not wholly clear whether the UCSP and UIPA violations were evidence of bad faith conduct, or were bad faith per se.

[We have previously posted on how courts treat alleged violations of UCSP regulations and the UIPA in bad faith cases, ranging from (1) their being completely outside the scope of consideration in determining bad faith, (2) as constituting potential evidence of bad faith, or (3) as amounting to statutory bad faith. It is not quite clear in the present case which of the latter two standards applied. Even without citing the UCSP or UIPA, however, it would seem the court’s finding that the insurer gave no regard to plainly covered vandalism claims was a basis for bad faith, regardless of any UCSP or UIPA violations.]

Erroneous Red Flags

The insurer justified its conduct by identifying certain “red flags” that caused legitimate doubt in the insureds veracity. When scrutinized, however, the court found these red flags were based on factual errors or erroneous assumptions.

  1. The insured was deemed uncooperative for failing to attend a unilaterally scheduled examination under oath. In fact, however, the court found the insured gave sufficient notice she could not attend on that date, and cooperated in rescheduling the examination under oath on another date, at which she appeared. She also had agreed to, and participated in, an examination over the phone.

As to the original date for the in-person examination, the court observed that the insurer knew in advance the insured was not going to appear on the first scheduled date, but still had its representatives appear to make a record against the insured for failing to appear.

  1. The insurer also asserted the insured was uncooperative because she provided redacted tax returns. As stated above, the insurer’s own representative had informed the insured in writing that certain redactions could be made. Further, when the insurer later requested an unredacted return, the insureds provided it.

  2. As to the alleged lack of cooperation on cell phone records, this was fully addressed during the examination under oath. As stated above, the insured was a medical professional and there were certain items on her phone records that could not be produced under HIPAA. That being said, she still offered to let the insurer’s representative look at her cell phone during the examination under oath, regarding non-HIPAA messages from the date the car was stolen. The adjuster was concerned about violating HIPAA, and was hesitant to do so.

  3. The insurer also deemed it a red flag that the loss came shortly after the policy’s purchase. This turned out to be an error. The court found the policy was purchased at least six months earlier. Another suspicion surrounded alleged excessive mileage on the car, which the court found was likewise not factually the case.

Failure to Fully Investigate the Red Flags

The court observed that while the insurer took the insured’s examination under oath, and conducted various investigations based on these alleged red flags, it failed to contact the police. Nor did the insurer follow up on evidence that drugs reportedly were found in the glove compartment. Though not expressly stated in the conclusions of law, this implies that the presence of drugs, under all the facts, favored the idea that strangers had stolen the car for nefarious purposes.

The Insurer Relied on its Expert Report for the Wrong Conclusion

For the court, the coverage issue concerning the insurer’s expert was simple: Was the car stolen? The issue was not: How was the car stolen?

The expert opined on two means by which the car was not stolen. The court found the expert never opined, however, that the car was not stolen. Moreover, the insurer never argued that the insureds faked a theft or lied about it.

The court pointed out that other means could have been used to steal the car, including non-intrusive and non-mechanical means. For example, after the car was recovered it was towed twice. The court found this demonstrated the car could be moved without forced entry and/or without a key.

Thus, the insurer’s reliance on the expert report to deny the fundamental existence of theft was unreasonable. The court found relying on the expert report to reach a conclusion (no theft) on which the report did not render an opinion, amounted to a knowing or reckless unreasonable denial of benefits, i.e. bad faith.

After finding bad faith on all the foregoing grounds, the court stated it would schedule a hearing on attorney’s fees, interest, and punitive damages.

Date of Decision: December 27, 2019

Unterberg v. Mercury Insurance Company of Florida, Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County Case No. 2016-C-806 (Dec. 27, 2019) (Pavlack, J.)

Thanks to Daniel Cummins of the excellent and extremely useful Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.

INSURED ADEQUATELY PLEADS BAD FAITH (Middle District)

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In this UIM breach of contract and bad faith case, the insured alleged a series of physical injuries after being rear-ended at a red light. The insurer denied the UIM claim. The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith count on the basis that plaintiff only set forth conclusory boilerplate allegations without any supporting facts. Judge Munley disagreed and denied the motion.

In denying the motion, the court found the following sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss:

Plaintiff’s complaint pleads facts indicating that defendant’s actions were unreasonable. Plaintiff alleges that he was injured in an automobile accident that was covered by the insurance policy. He further asserts that he made a claim for benefits under the policy and defendant was dilatory and abusive in the handling of the claim. … Plaintiff additionally claims that defendant failed to reasonably and adequately investigate the claim and failed to reasonably evaluate or review the medical documents and/or photographs which were in its possession. … Defendant failed to make an honest, intelligent and objective settlement offer. … The defendant, thus, compelled plaintiff to file suit and engage in litigation, when a reasonable evaluation of the claim would have avoided suit. … Moreover, the defendant failed to follow its own manual with regard to the evaluation and payment of benefits-and even failed to pay the undisputed amount owed.

We have previously summarized Judge Munley’s recent decisions in Castillo and Deluca reaching similar results.

Date of Decision: November 19, 2019

Ranieli v. State Farm Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv1176, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 200380 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2019) (Munley, J.)

GENERAL ALLEGATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE OR RECKLESSNESS SUFFICIENT, AND THE INSURER’S INTENT CAN BE PURSUED IN DISCOVERY (Middle District)

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In his second bad faith opinion this week, Middle District Judge James Munley found bad faith adequately pleaded, and denied a motion to dismiss. The case involved an uninsured motorist claim. The insured suffered injuries, the insurer had $300,000 on its policy, and it appears the insurer refused to pay policy limits or make a payment meeting the insured’s demands.

First, on the reasonableness prong of the bad faith test, Judge Munley stated: “Plaintiff’s complaint pleads facts indicating that defendant’s actions were unreasonable. Plaintiff alleges that she was injured in an automobile accident that was covered by the insurance policy. … She notified defendant of the damages and provide it with sufficient documentation to support her claim, including updating records for ongoing medical treatment. … Defendant refused to make a reasonable offer of settlement despite plaintiff trying to work with it and despite the ‘mountain of evidence’ that she had provided. … ‘[D]espite the results of any investigations performed by [defendant] and the clear medical documentation supporting their claim for UM benefits, [defendant] has blatantly ignored the evidence, has done no further investigation and has simply denied [plaintiff] the recovery of appropriate UM benefits without explaining its reason for the denial. … These allegations are sufficiently specific to make out a claim for bad faith — at least with respect to the first prong, that defendant lacked a reasonable basis for denying the benefits at issue.”

The court rejected the argument that these allegations were akin to the failed pleadings in the Third Circuit’s 2012 Smith v. State Farm case. By contrast to the “much more general” allegations in Smith, and the exhibits attached to the Smith Complaint indicating there was no bad faith, the instant allegations “are much more specific and no exhibits indicate that the defendant acted in good faith.”

As to the second prong, i.e., whether the benefit denial was known to be unreasonable or its unreasonableness was recklessly disregarded, Judge Munley states: “Additionally, we find that plaintiff has sufficiently pled the second element of a bad faith claim, that is, that defendant knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis to deny the benefits. Plaintiff’s complaint makes a general allegation that defendant knew it had no basis to deny the claim. … We find that at this stage of the proceedings, such an allegation is sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. This element goes to the knowledge and state of mind of the defendant. Plaintiff will not be able to fully inquire into such matters until discovery occurs in the case. Accordingly, we find that the motion to dismiss should be denied.”

Date of Decision: November 6, 2019

Deluca v. Progressive Advanced Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv1661 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 6, 2019) (Munley, J.)

INSURED ADEQUATELY PLEADS BAD FAITH CLAIM AGAINST THIRD LAYER INSURER (Middle District)

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There were three policy layers in this uninsured motorist case, concerning an opinion issued yesterday by Middle District Judge James Munley. Plaintiff alleged significant and permanent injuries, and she sought payment from the third layer insurer. This insurer had $60,000 in potential coverage and offered $1,000 to settle. The insured brought claims for breach of contract and bad faith.

The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim. Judge Munley denied the motion to dismiss, after examining the allegations against the two elements of statutory bad faith: (1) reasonableness of the insurer’s benefit denial and (2) knowing or reckless disregard of that denial’s unreasonable nature.

First, Judge Munley found the following allegations sufficient to set forth a claim that the settlement position and claims handling were unreasonable:

“An inadequate investigation by the insurance company may lead to a claim of bad faith. Smith v. Allstate Ins. Co., 904 F. Supp. 2d 515, 524 (W.D. Pa. 2012). Count II, of the complaint alleges that the defendant, inter alia, failed to properly investigate plaintiff’s claims, refused to pay plaintiff’s claims without conducting a prompt, reasonable investigation based upon all available information, denied the claim without conducting a completely independent review of plaintiff’s injuries and damages, and caused unreasonable delay in all aspects of the handling of plaintiff’s claim. … Plaintiff further avers that the defendant lacked a reasonable basis for underestimating the value of plaintiff’s UM claim and denying benefits. … We find that these factual allegations, which we must accept as true at this stage of the proceedings, are sufficient to meet the first element, that is, defendant lacked a reasonable basis to deny the benefits.”

Next, Judge Munley found the plaintiff met the knowing or reckless disregard element, concluding: “Plaintiff’s complaint makes a general allegation that defendant knew it had no basis to deny the claim. … We find that at this stage of the proceedings, such an allegation is sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. This element goes to the knowledge and state of mind of the defendant. Plaintiff will not be able to fully inquire into such matters until discovery occurs in the case. Accordingly, we find that the motion to dismiss should be denied.”

Date of Decision: November 4, 2019

Castillo v. Progressive Insurance, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv1628, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 190834 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 4, 2019) (Munley, J.)

[UPDATED JANUARY 25, 2020] COURT ACCEPTS GENERAL ALLEGATIONS OF BAD FAITH CONDUCT AS ADEQUATE, BASED ON APPARENTLY LIMITED PLEADING OF UNDERLYING FACTS CONCERNING SEVERITY OF HARM AND LENGTH OF TIME WITH NO PAYMENT, AND LATER DENIES THE INSURER SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON SAME GROUNDS AND EXPERT REPORT ON DEVIATIONS FROM INDUSTRY CLAIM HANDLING STANDARDS (Western District)

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In this UIM breach of contract and bad faith case, the insureds were severely injured by a drunk driver. There was $600,000 in UIM coverage. No UIM payments were made for two years and the insured brought suit. The insurer moved to dismiss both counts.

The court first found the plaintiffs adequately pleaded a breach of the insurance contract. Next, the court drew inferences from the complaint’s averments in allowing the bad faith claim to proceed.

Specifically, plaintiffs pleaded severe injuries, through no fault of their own, that could not be fully compensated by the tortfeasor’s insurance. The complaint alleges that two years after the accident, the insurer “had failed to make any payments whatsoever to [the insureds] under the policy’s UIM coverage provision.” The insureds complied with the terms of the insurance policy at issue, giving reasonable notice of the accident and cooperating with the investigation.

“The complaint further alleges that, in addition to [the insurer’s] unreasonable delay in claims handling and its unreasonable failure to pay benefits, [the insurer] has failed to make a reasonable settlement offer, failed to reasonably and adequately investigate their claims, and failed to reasonably evaluate or review all pertinent documentation provided by the plaintiffs in support of their claim for UIM benefits. Accepting the facts alleged in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, we find that the plaintiffs have stated a plausible statutory bad faith claim….”

Date of Decision: October 24, 2019

Golden v. Brethren Mutual Insurance Company, U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-cv-02425, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 183691 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 24, 2019) (Saporito, M.J.)

One month later, the court issued an opinion denying summary judgment on both breach of contract and statutory bad faith. On the contract claim, the court stated that the contractual duty of good faith can be breached through a delay in payment of an inordinate and unreasonable time period.  Within the breach of contract analysis, the court looked to such  issues as the insurer’s claims handling and investigation, the insureds cooperation, and the ultimate claim valuation.

On the statutory bad faith claim, the court identified documents produced by the parties concerning the years long claims handling process. The insurer produced a body of documents in support of its claim that it was in constant communication with the insureds, and the insureds submitted other communication documents including demands on the insurer and medical records to support their bad faith position. The court also considered the insureds expert’s testimony opining that “in the context of industry standard for claims handling, [the] investigation, evaluation and resolution of the plaintiffs UIM claims was unreasonable and intentionally dilatory.”

Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving insured, the court found there remained a material dispute of fact concerning the alleged failure to reasonably investigate, evaluate, or pay the claim.

Date of Decision: November 25, 2019

Golden v. Brethren Mutual Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-cv-02425, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 183691 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 25, 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.)