Archive for the 'PA – MVFRL' Category

INSURER’S COVERAGE DENIAL OBJECTIVELY REASONABLE AND THUS NO BAD FAITH IS POSSIBLE (Western District)

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Western District Judge Hornak adopted Magistrate Judge Kelly’s Report and Recommendation to grant the insurer summary judgment, in this underinsured motorist coverage breach of contract and bad faith case.

First, the breach of contract claim hinged on whether the insurer’s underinsured motorist coverage rejection form comported with Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL).  The insured signed a form rejecting UIM coverage, but argued the form he signed did not meet the MVFRL’s requirements, and therefore should be deemed void.

The court rejected this argument, and found no UIM coverage due.  The court also found that the failure to include a proper renewal notice regarding the rejection of UIM coverage was a violation of the MVFRL. Renewal notice MVFRL violations, however, have long been held not to provide a private remedy in the courts.  Rather, any failure in the renewal form was solely for administrative review by the insurance department.

Thus, the insurer obtained summary judgment on the coverage claim.

In light of this ruling, the bad faith claim necessarily failed because there was an objectively reasonable basis to deny UIM coverage, since the insured himself had rejected UIM coverage.  While there were some flaws in the claim adjuster’s manner of denying coverage, the fact is that the adjuster reached the correct conclusion that no coverage was due; and the carrier consistently took that position throughout, including an independent analysis by coverage counsel after the adjuster’s initial denial that no coverage was due.

Dates of Decision:  July 12, 2021 (Report and Recommendation), August 2, 2021 (Order adopting Report and Recommendation)

Keeler v. Esurance Insurance Services, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 20-271 (W.D.Pa. July 12, 2021) (Kelly, M.J.) (Report and Recommendation), adopted by Order of the District Court (Aug. 2, 2021) (Hornak, J.)

Our thanks to Attorney Daniel Cummins, author of the excellent TortTalk Blog, for bringing this case to our attention.

COURT ADDRESSES (1) COMMON LAW VS. STATUTORY BAD FAITH STANDARDS; (2) LACK OF CLARITY IN THE LAW AND BAD FAITH; (3) DELAYS IN CLAIM HANDLING AND SETTLEMENT OFFERS; (4) APPLYING THE UNFAIR INSURANCE PRACTICES ACT IN BAD FAITH CASES; (5) AGGRESSIVE DISCOVERY/CLAIM HANDLING DURING LITIGATION; and (6) LOW RANGE SETTLEMENT OFFERS (Philadelphia Federal)

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Eastern District Judge Tucker explains the similarities and differences between common law and statutory bad faith, in granting the insurer summary judgment on the statutory bad faith claim, but rejecting dismissal of the common law bad faith claims.  She observes both types of bad faith are subject to the clear and convincing evidence standard. However, common law bad faith only requires proof of negligent claim handling, while statutory bad faith requires a knowingly or recklessly unreasonable claim denial.

Judge Tucker cites Judge McLaughlin’s 2007 Dewalt case as authority on the negligence standard.  Judge Tucker does focus on the Cowden type of common law bad faith in discussing these standards, i.e., an insurer can avoid a common law bad faith claim for failure to settle within policy limits by showing “a bona fide belief … predicated on all the circumstances of the case, that it has a good possibility of winning the suit.”  This kind of third party insurance bad faith claim was not before the court.  Rather, the facts involved an underinsured motorist claim.

In an earlier decision, Judge Tucker entered judgment for the insurer on the basis the plaintiff did not qualify as an insured under the policy.  The Third Circuit reversed her decision.  While true the policy language did not provide the plaintiff UIM coverage, the Third Circuit found this limitation violated Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL).

On remand, the insured argued that the policy was issued in bad faith because it included language violating the MVFRL.  Judge Tucker rejected the common law bad faith claim on this point.  There was no precedent or binding authority on point before the Third Circuit’s decision, and the carrier’s position, while ultimately incorrect, was not unreasonable. “This matters because an insurer making a reasonable judgment as to coverage in a situation where the law is not clear cannot be liable for bad faith.”

This did not end the common law bad faith inquiry. Once the Third Circuit ruled, making the law applied to the policy crystal clear, this changed the measure of the insurer’s behavior, i.e., at that point the carrier knew it had an obligation to provide UIM coverage. In determining the common law bad faith claim, Judge Tucker stated:

  1. Conduct that postdates the start of litigation can form the basis for a proper bad faith claim.

  2. After the Third Circuit ruled that the Nationwide policy violated the MVFRL, Nationwide did not extend a settlement offer for ten months after the decision.

  3. When Nationwide did present an offer … it was for just $500,000 of the UIM benefits—in exchange for releasing the bad faith and class action claims.

  4. This offer was doubled a week later to $1 million, but it was contingent on a broader release of all disputes related to coverage.

  5. A failure to “promptly settle claims, where liability has become reasonably clear, under one portion of the insurance policy coverage in order to influence settlements under other portions of the insurance policy” is considered an unfair insurance practice under Pennsylvania law. 40 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 1171.5(a)(10)(xiii).

  6. The [UIPA] also singles out a refusal to “effectuate prompt, fair and equitable settlements of claims in which the company’s liability under the policy has become reasonably clear” as a similarly unfair insurance practice.

  7. While a violation of the Unfair Insurance Practice Act (UIPA) does not constitute a per se violation of the bad faith statute, it does point to a material fact that could support a common law bad faith claim. [Judge Tucker observes apparently contrasting case law on this point, quoting some cases to the effect that UIPA violations are not bad faith per se, and another that “the rules of statutory construction permit a trial court to consider … the alleged conduct constituting violations of the UIPA or the regulations in determining whether an insurer, like Nationwide, acted in ‘bad faith.”]

  8. Again citing Dewalt, Judge Tucker states: The fact that Nationwide offered a settlement is also not a safe harbor from a bad faith claim. “Although most Pennsylvania cases finding bad faith do so in situations where an insurer refuses to settle, no case suggests that such a refusal is a pre-requisite for a bad faith claim.”

  9. Judge Tucker concludes that: Given the resolution of the disputed terms in the Nationwide policy by the Third Circuit, Defendant’s refusal to provide an unconditioned settlement for a claim under those terms is enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find in favor of Plaintiff on the common law bad faith claim.

Thus, the common law bad faith was allowed to proceed. The statutory bad faith claim was not.

The pre-suit conduct, i.e., drafting the policy with a clause violating the MVFRL, certainly could not be bad faith under the higher statutory standards if it did not constitute negligence under the common law standard.  Plaintiff could not show by clear and convincing evidence that the policy language and the carrier’s conduct in following that language was objectively unreasonable at the time, much less in knowing or reckless disregard of some unreasonable conduct.

As to litigation conduct after the Third Circuit had ruled, the insurer pursued aggressive discovery.  [This discovery was essentially the insurer’s claim handling at this point.]  Judge Tucker laid out the details of the insurer’s discovery/claim handling and specific events over the course of discovery/claim handling.  This included the insurer’s making a number of reasonable requests for information and the insured’s creating delays.  The carrier’s zealous, and maybe at times questionable, defense tactics did not equate to bad faith.

Judge Tucker also observed that offers on the low end of a settlement range for subjective damages such as pain and suffering do not constitute clear and convincing evidence that the insurer’s action were unreasonable, knowing or reckless.  These sorts of claims require investigation, and the carrier’s discovery on these issues amounted to standard claim handling.

Judge Tucker next stated that the insurer’s 10 month delay in making a settlement offer, absent other aggravating factors, was “well under periods of time that have been deemed acceptable for statutory bad faith purposes.”

Judge Tucker also found it significant that the insurer “communicated with Plaintiff during discovery, sending multiple document requests and communicating with Plaintiff’s counsel, which is arguably more responsive than the amount of communication Defendant received in response. This too weighs against whether a reasonable jury could rule that Nationwide had knowing or reckless disregard for the deficiency of its position.”

Thus, summary judgment was denied on the statutory bad faith claim.

Date of Decision:  July 14, 2021

Slupski v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, U. S. District Court Eastern District Pennsylvania No. CV 18-3999, 2021 WL 2948829 (E.D. Pa. July 14, 2021) (Tucker, J.)

NO SECOND BITE AT THE APPLE IN RECONSIDERING BAD FAITH DISMISSAL; MVFRL TREBLE DAMAGES CLAIM STRICKEN (Philadelphia Federal)

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Eastern District Judge Pappert previously dismissed the insured’s UIM bad faith claim.  A summary of that decision can be found here.

Presently, Judge Pappert denied the insured’s motion for reconsideration. He cited case law making clear that motions for reconsideration are not second bites at the apple, but must show either: “(1) an intervening change in the controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence that was not available when the court granted the motion … or (3) the need to correct a clear error of law or fact or to prevent manifest injustice.”

None of these factors existed. Thus, while the insured “may disagree with the Court’s determination, nothing in her motion shows that her bad faith claim was dismissed because of a clear error of law or that its dismissal amounts to manifest injustice.”

In his earlier decision, Judge Pappert also dismissed plaintiff’s claims for treble damages under the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL), on the basis the insured did not allege wanton conduct against the insurer. That dismissal, however, was without prejudice. The insured raised the same claim in its second amended complaint, but Judge Pappert found this amendment “still lacks sufficient allegations of wanton conduct, as she has not alleged ‘any new facts at all.’”

Rather than dismissing the claim under Rule 12(b)(6), consistent with the insurer’s motion Judge Pappert struck the treble damages claim per Rule 12(f).

Date of Decision:  December 18, 2020

Canfield v. Amica Mut. Ins. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-2794, 2020 WL 7479615 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2020) (Pappert, J.)

NO BAD FAITH FOR DENIAL OF FIRST PARTY MEDICAL BENEFITS (Western District)

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In this first party medical benefits case, the insured generally alleged that the carrier breached the policy and failed to pay medical benefits on all the bills submitted. The insured further alleged that the carrier selected a biased doctor to carry out an independent medical peer review.

The court dismissed both the breach of contract and bad faith claims, with leave to amend.

On the breach of contact claim, the Complaint failed to include “the essential terms of that policy including those related to first party benefits.” The insured never averred “why her medical treatments at issue were a result of the … accident and were reasonable and necessary or why [the insurer’s] reliance on an ‘independent medical peer review’ to deny further medical benefits was unreasonable.”

Further, the Complaint did “not sufficiently plead what damages she seeks for [the insurer’s] alleged failure to pay first party benefits. While [the insurer] may have received bills for which payment was denied, the Complaint does not sufficiently specify the scope of services or amount of billing to identify the damages that [the insured] may be seeking in this case. Therefore, without sufficient pleading as to the elements of a breach of contract, [the insured] has not adequately pleaded a breach of contract claim.”

As to the bad faith claim, the complaint only alleged the insurer “failed to complete a prompt and thorough investigation, conducted an unfair and unreasonable investigation, failed to objectively and fairly evaluate her claim, and selected a peer review physician who was biased.” These generic allegations could not meet the Twombly/Iqbal standards. The insured “did not provide any factual support for these legal conclusions,” thus, lacking the specificity to survive the motion to dismiss.

The carrier also moved to dismiss the bad faith claim on the basis that the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law, 75 Pa.C.S. § 1797, preempts the bad faith statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371.

The court observed Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has not decided the issue of whether these statutes conflict and when/whether section 1797 preempts section 8371. “However, both the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the Third Circuit have predicted that the specific provisions of § 1797 preempt the general provisions of § 8371.” Pennsylvania’s federal district courts, however, split on the extent of preemption. “While courts agree that § 1797 generally preempts § 8371 in claims for first-party benefits under the MVFRL, ‘[a] robust majority of courts have held that a Section 8371 claim is not preempted when an insurer’s alleged malfeasance goes beyond the scope of Section 1797 or is obviously not amenable to resolution by the procedures set forth in Section 1797(b).’”

The insured did not plead sufficient facts to escape the preemption argument, just as she failed to plead sufficient facts on the breach of contract and bad faith claims.  So again, the claim was dismissed with leave to amend.

Date of Decision: December 7, 2020

Franks v. Nationwide Property & Casualty Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-01290-MJH, 2020 WL 7142687 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 7, 2020) (Horan, J.)

(1) NO WANTON CONDUCT UNDER MVFRL INVOKING TREBLE DAMAGES AND SUPER INTEREST; (2) NO STATUTORY BAD FAITH WHERE (i) MVFRL PREEMPTS BAD FAITH STATUTE; (ii) THERE IS ONLY A VALUATION DISPUTE; (iii) INVESTIGATION REASONABLE; (4) BIAS CLAIMS ARE MERELY SUBJECTIVE (Philadelphia Federal)

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Plaintiff was injured in an auto accident and made both PIP claims and underinsured motorist (UIM) claims. She found the carrier’s settlement offers and negotiations wholly inadequate, and brought statutory bad faith claims, and claims for damages under the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL) seeking treble damages and super interest for the insurer’s allegedly “wanton” conduct concerning her medical benefit claims.

MVFRL Claims

The court found the insured could proceed on her PIP claim under a breach of contract theory. However, the MVFRL claim for treble damages and 12% interest, under 75 Pa. C.S. § 1797(b)(4), was dismissed without prejudice. Judge Pappert held plaintiff had not pleaded “wanton” conduct, a predicate for gaining the extraordinary remedies under this statute.

The insurer also asserted the MVFRL count actually alleged a breach of the duty of good fair dealing, and moreover constituted an improper effort to get relief under the Bad Faith Statute. It asked the court to strike certain averments related to this putative backdoor bad faith claim.

The court rejected this argument: “Although Count II appears to assert a claim under the MVFRL … it also appears to assert a claim for … alleged breach of the implied contractual duty to act in good faith related to her PIP coverage. …  Because [the insured] may pursue a claim for breach of her policy’s PIP coverage obligations and because motions to strike are ‘not favored and usually will be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties,’ the Court will not strike her allegations regarding the duty of good faith and fair dealing in Count II.”

MVFRL Claims and the Bad Faith Statute

The court then addressed the statutory bad faith claim.

The court first observed that unless the insurer’s “conduct falls outside of the scope of § 1797 of the MVFRL, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1797, and involves a bad faith abuse of the process challenging more than just the insurer’s denial of first party benefits, the MVFRL preempts any statutory bad faith claim concerning … PIP benefits.” The court made clear, “To the extent that the gravamen of [the] bad faith claim is the denial of first party medical benefits and nothing more, [the insurer’s] alleged conduct is within the scope of § 1797 of the MVFRL and therefore [she] is precluded from bringing such a claim.”

However, “[s]ection 8371 bad faith claims remain cognizable when the basis of a benefits denial does not relate to the reasonableness and necessity of treatment, or when an insurer’s conduct is obviously not amenable to resolution by the procedures set forth in Section 1797(b).”

Dispute Over Valuation not Bad Faith

The insured alleged the insurer delayed her claim and denied its value. The court found these allegations did not equate to allegations that the insurer actually deny the UIM or PIP. Rather, there was a dispute over valuation.

Analyzing the matter as a valuation dispute, Judge Pappert found the insured did not allege “facts sufficient to show [the insurer’s] valuation is unreasonable.” The insured’s subjective beliefs as to her claim’s value “is not indicative of bad faith because … subjective belief as to the value of the claim may reasonably, and permissibly, differ.”

Rather, “[t]o state a bad faith claim, [an insured] must do more than call [the insurer’s] offers low-ball.” These kind of conclusory and subjective allegations “suggest nothing more than a normal dispute between an insured and insurer.”

Low but Reasonable Offers Not Bad Faith

Bad faith does not exist “merely because an insurer makes a low but reasonable estimate of an insured’s damages.” Nor does a refusal “to immediately accede to a demand for the policy limit … without more, amount to bad faith.”

Insurer had Reasonable Basis to Deny Claim/No Adequate Claim of Bias

Next, Judge Pappert rejected the argument that the insured adequately pleaded the insurer lacked a reasonable basis to deny the claim’s value.  The insurer requested medical records and had an IME performed. It assessed the insured’s injuries based on that information.

The court did not give weight to conclusory allegations the doctor performing the IME was “a biased IME doctor” and “well-known as [someone] who provides so-called Independent Medical Examinations exclusively for and apparently to the liking of insurance companies….”  Further, that the plaintiff’s own doctor said she needed surgery did not, by itself, support a bad faith claim. The insurer was not unreasonable in relying  on the IME doctor’s assessment that the symptoms requiring surgery were unrelated to the accident at issue.

“In the absence of any supporting facts from which it might be inferred that [the] investigation was biased or unreasonable, this type of disagreement in an insurance case is not unusual, and cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.”

The court, however, permitted plaintiff to amend the statutory bad faith claim “to the extent it is not preempted by the MVFRL and to the extent she is able to allege facts stating a plausible claim for relief.”

Date of Decision: October 2, 2020

Canfield v. Amica Mutual Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-2794, 2020 WL 5878261 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 2, 2020) (Pappert, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM FOR USING WRONG FEE SCHEDULE TO PAY FIRST PARTY MEDICAL BENEFITS PREEMPTED BY MVFRL; BUT CASE CAN PROCEED UNDER UTPCPL (Middle District)

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This class action complaint alleged the insurer underpaid on motor vehicle personal injury benefits claims by using an improper fee schedule, resulting in lower payments than were due.

The court held the statutory bad faith claims were pre-empted by the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL). The court extensively discussed case law addressing when 75 Pa.C.S. § 1797 preempted 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371. It held the MVFRL preempts section 8371 bad faith claims where the gravamen of the insured’s claim “is the denial of first party medical benefits and nothing more.” By contrast, e.g., abuse of the PRO process might not be preempted.

On the other hand, the court found the complaint adequately pleaded a claim under the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, as paying an improper sum is more than mere nonfeasance.

Date of Decision: April 13, 2020

Banks v. Allstate Fire & Casualty Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 3:19-CV-01617, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63863 (M.D. Pa. April 13, 2020) (Wilson, J.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date of Decision: February 18, 2020

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

INSURED SETS OUT BAD FAITH DELAY CLAIM, AS WELL AS CLAIM FOR ATTORNEY’S FEES (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM case involved a claim for full policy limits, amounting to $45,000. The insured alleged serious permanent injuries.

Over two years passed from the time the insured gave notice until the time of suit, with the claim neither paid nor denied. The insured filed suit for declaratory judgment, breach of contract, and bad faith. The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim and attorney’s fee claim, and the court denied the motion.

Bad Faith Claim Based on Delay Adequately Pleaded

The court recognized at least two sources of statutory bad faith: (1) failure to pay and (2) delay in making payment. As to the first, “[w]here a claim of bad faith is based on a refusal to pay benefits under a policy, ‘the plaintiff must show that the defendant did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy and that defendant knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying the claim.’” As to the second, “[t]o sufficiently plead bad faith by way of delay, ‘a plaintiff must allege that a defendant had no reasonable basis for the delay in coverage, and that the defendant delayed coverage with knowing or reckless disregard for the unreasonableness of its action.’”

The court found bad faith delay pleaded, based on the following factual allegations:

  1. The insurer “was put on notice of [the] underinsured motorist benefits claim in March 2017.”

  2. “In January 2018, [the insurer] waived its subrogation rights and consented to … settlement with the third-party insurance carrier.”

  3. “On March 30, 2018, [the insurer] advised [the insured] that her claim for underinsured motorist benefits was being evaluated.”

  4. “From April to July 2018, the parties communicated regarding scheduling an EUO, which took place on July 9, 2018.” As pleaded, it was the insurer that sought an EUO in July, and the insured asked to move it up.

  5. “On July 26, 2018, [the insurer] advised [the insured] that it would likely require her to undergo an IME, however, [the insurer] never moved forward with the IME.”

  6. “Between August 2018 and February 2019, [the insured] provided medical records to [the insurer], both unsolicited and at their request.”

  7. “Between February and June 2019, [the insurer] did not notify [the insured] as to the status of her claim, and at the time of the filing of the instant Complaint in September 2019, [the insurer] had neither paid [the] claim, nor denied it.”

The court summarized how these factual allegations made out a bad faith claim. The insured repeatedly tried to have her claim evaluated. She complied with requests for information, provided unsolicited information, and inquired as to the claim status. However, “despite having over two years to conduct its investigation, [the insurer] has unreasonably and without justification failed to approve or deny her claim.” Based on these factual allegations, there appears no reasonable basis to delay the claim evaluation, which the court equated with a failure to evaluate. The knowing/reckless bad faith element was met because the insured had given notice to the insurer through her inquiries and providing information that the claim had not been paid or rejected.

The court cited the Ridolfi, Kelly, and Smerdon cases concerning a delay-based bad faith analysis.

Clear and Convincing Evidence Standard Held Irrelevant at Pleading Stage

The court rejected the argument that the factual pleadings had to be measured against the clear and convincing evidence standard at the motion to dismiss stage. The court stated this standard is relevant, e.g., to trial, but not at the pleading stage. Rather, pleadings are governed by the plausibility standard. Thus, the insured “need not ‘establish’ anything at this early point in the proceedings, let alone ‘by clear and convincing evidence.’” “Whether sufficient facts will be discovered for [the insured] to survive a motion for summary judgment is unknown and may be addressed at a later date.”

Attorney’s Fees Possible under Bad Faith Statute or MVFRL

Finally, the court refused to dismiss the attorney’s fee claim based on both the bad faith statute, and the possibility that attorney’s fees might be permitted under section 1716 of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law.

Date of Decision: January 24, 2020

Solano-Sanchez v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. No. 5:19-cv-04016, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11784 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 24, 2020) (Leeson, Jr., J.)

PUNITIVE DAMAGES CLAIM PREVENTS REMAND; BAD FAITH PLEADED WHERE CASE IS NOT MERELY A VALUATION DISPUTE (Middle District)

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On July 1, 2019, Judge Munley issued two opinions in this UIM bad faith case: (1) finding removal proper; and (2) finding the insured pleaded a plausible bad faith case.

Removal was proper where potential punitive damages could take the case above the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum

Judge Munley ruled that the case would remain in federal court, after removal from state court. The insured allegedly suffered severe personal injuries, and the carrier refused to pay the $25,000 UIM policy limits. The state court complaint sought damages in excess of $50,000, punitive damages, interest, counsel fees and costs.

The court recognized that actual damages were limited to $25,000, and the punitive damage and attorney’s fees claims would have to exceed $50,000 to meet the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum. Judge Munley found that “[a] punitive damages award which is double the amount of the policy limit is reasonable and possible in such a case.” As remand is only proper when it appears to “a legal certainty that the plaintiff cannot recover, or was never entitled to recover, the jurisdictional amount [$75,000],” he denied the motion to remand.

The insured pleads a plausible bad faith claim where delays and refusal to pay the sum demanded are not mere disagreements over valuation

Judge Munley observed the insured alleged a severe injury, with damages beyond the tortfeasor’s coverage limits. The insured’s UIM coverage was $25,000, which the defendant carrier refused to pay. Judge Munley concluded the case, as pleaded, was not merely a disagreement over claim valuation, but made out a plausible bad faith claim.

The following averments were sufficient to survive the insurer’s motion to dismiss:

  1. “The amended complaint avers that defendant failed to effectuate a prompt fair and equitable settlement of plaintiff’s claim and compelled her to seek legal redress and commence litigation to recover the benefits to which she was entitled.”

  2. “Further, defendant ignored and discounted the severity of plaintiff’s injuries.”

  3. “Also, defendant did not promptly evaluate the claim, but rather engaged in dilatory and abusive claims handling by delaying the valuation of plaintiff’s claim and failing to pay the claim.”

  4. “The amended complaint also suggests that defendant failed to timely investigate or to make a reasonable settlement offer.”

  5. “Defendant further delayed by asking for authorization to receive medical records which were already in its possession.”

The court also refused to dismiss an attorney’s fee demand under the breach of contract count, as such fees might prove permissible under the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Act (MVFRL).

Dates of Decision: July 1, 2019

Pivtchev v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv150, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109378 (M.D. Pa. July 1, 2019) (Munley, J.)

Pivtchev v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19cv150, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109377 (M.D. Pa. July 1, 2019) (Munley, J.)

MVFRL PRE-EMPTED INSURED’S BAD FAITH CLAIMS FOR BENEFITS, BUT INSURED ALLOWED TO AMEND IF SHE COULD PLEAD ABUSE OF PRO PROCESS (Middle District)

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The magistrate judge recommended dismissing the alleged section 8371 bad faith claims, but further recommended allowing the insured to amend her claim to plead abuse of the PRO process.

All of the bad faith claims actually pleaded involved denial of first party medical benefits under an auto policy. The MVFRL preempted these claims, and the section 8371 bad faith action was dismissed. The court observed, however, that challenges “to the PRO process itself or to the insurer’s abuse of the PRO process” are not preempted, and can constitute independent section 8371 bad faith.

Though not in the complaint, the brief opposing dismissal included allegations that might push the insurer’s conduct beyond the MVFRL’s parameters, and into the abuse of process realm. Thus, the magistrate judge recommended allowing leave to amend the section 8371 action instead of dismissal with prejudice, and the district judge adopted this recommendation.

Date of Decision: November 19, 2018 (Report and Recommendation), December 13, 2018 (Order Adopting Report and Recommendation)

Barnard v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Corp., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 3:18-CV-01218, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 197852 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2018) (Carlson, M.J.) (Report and Recommendation), adopted by District Court (Mariani, J.)