Archive for the 'PA – Red flags during investigation' Category

ALLEGED “RED FLAGS” NOT ENOUGH TO DEFEAT BAD FAITH CLAIM; MOTION TO BIFURCATE DENIED (Philadelphia Federal)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Eastern District Judge Younge denied the insurer’s summary judgment motion on bad faith, and its motion to bifurcate the bad faith claim.

Plaintiff sought coverage based on auto theft and damage to the vehicle. The carrier investigated the claim, and took the vehicle into its custody during the investigation.  The carrier never paid on the claim.  Rather, it assigned the claim to its Special Investigation Unit (SIU) because of “red flags” it allegedly uncovered. The carrier argued these red flags supported its decision to further investigate the claim and then to deny coverage, making the process reasonable and thus beyond the scope of a bad faith claim.

Summary Judgment Denied on the Merits

Judge Younge gives a thorough exposition of bad faith law, and specifically the law concerning the reasonableness of investigations and red flags.  Despite the carrier’s arguments that its investigation, and denial based thereon, were reasonable, Judge Younge ruled that the carrier’s arguments were insufficient to get summary judgment under this case law.  The insured adduced “several holes” in the carrier’s investigation that could be indicia of an unreasonable investigation, despite the putative red flags.  Further, the record was lacking in evidence that the insured “had any motive to damage, destroy or fake the theft of her Vehicle.”

[Judge Younge cited legal principles from the April 2021 Fuentes case, summarized here, which cited the 2019 Merrone case, summarized here, where “red flags” were sufficient to make to carrier’s investigation reasonable.  For those litigating “red flag” cases, it will be useful to compare and contrast Judge Younge’s Bermudez opinion with these two cases.]

Motion to Bifurcate Denied

In denying the motion to bifurcate, Judge Younge found:

  1. The insurer “failed to establish the level of prejudice necessary to warrant bifurcation.”

  2. “[I]t would appear that the evidence related to Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim will overlap evidence presented in relationship to Plaintiff’s insurance bad faith claim.”  “For example, both claims will focus on whether Plaintiff was involved in the theft of her own Vehicle and/or whether Plaintiff made a material misrepresentation to her insurance company in connection with her claim.”

  3. “Defendant’s investigatory process, its interpretation of the evidence and impression of witnesses which would ordinarily be relevant to an insurance bad faith claim will be equally relevant to the breach of contract claim under the facts of this case. Defendant’s reason for refusing to provide coverage for the Vehicle will be at issue in the breach of contract claim.”

  4. “From the perspective of judicial economy, bifurcation of trial on separate claims could prove inefficient and inconvenient.”

  5. “Bifurcation could result in the unnecessary need to call the same witnesses twice to testify before the same jury on two separate occasions which would extend the amount of time necessary for the jury to resolve this litigation.”

Judge Younge did recognize the insurer had some legitimate concerns, and stated: “Based on overlapping evidence and the intertwined nature of the two claims, the prejudice that Defendant will suffer from trying these two claims together remains to be seen. However, to mitigate any potential concerns, the Court could provide curative instructions and/or implement a staged verdict sheet that would ask the jury to resolve the breach of contract claim prior to reaching the insurance bad faith claim. The varying burdens of proof for breach of contract and insurance bad faith could be explained to the jury and described on the verdict sheet. Potentially, evidence related to damages under insurance bad faith, and specifically punitive damages, could be presented to the jury after it resolves issues related to liability. These issues can be fairly addressed at a pretrial conference prior to jury selection.”

Date of Decision:  July 19, 2021

Bermudez v. Progressive Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. 19-CV-4085-JMY, 2021 WL 3033757 (E.D. Pa. July 19, 2021) (Younge, J.)

NO BAD FAITH WHERE “RED FLAGS” EXISTED THAT COULD UNDERMINE COVERAGE; RULE TO FILE COMPLAINT NOT BAD FAITH (Middle District)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This case involved an auto accident death, and whether the deceased was an insured “family member” under his stepfather’s auto policy.  Coverage depends on whether the deceased resided with the named insured/step-father at the time of the accident.  The stepfather brought breach of contract and bad faith claims, on behalf of his stepson’s estate.

The court denied summary judgment to both parties on the coverage issues, as material facts remained open on the coverage issued.  As Judge Mannion states, “[i]n short, there exist too many disputed material facts as to whether [the stepson] was a ‘family member’ of plaintiff’s household at the time of the accident.”

The court did grant the insurer summary judgment on the bad faith claim, as plaintiff could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard necessary to prove bad faith.

Judge Mannion observed that during its investigation, the insurer discovered that the stepson might not have met the definition of “family member” under the policy.  There were statements from two people that the stepson with living with his girlfriend and her mother, not the stepfather; that the stepfather had removed the stepson from the policy at issue; and that the deceased had purchased his own vehicle with its own insurance policy, and that policy had an address other than the stepfather’s address at the time of the accident.

While the stepson’s driver’s license and tax returns did indicate he resided with his stepfather, the insurer “certainly had sufficient evidence that showed [the stepson’s] physical residence was at [the girlfriend’s] house.”

Red flags oblige the insurer to investigate thoroughly

Looking at all the circumstances, Judge Mannion observed that “[u]nder Pennsylvania law, insurers are permitted to ‘conduct a thorough investigation’ of a questionable claim without acting in bad faith”, and “[w]here 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.”  Here, the insurer “had more than a reasonable basis to investigate where [the stepson] was really residing at the time of the accident since it had ample evidence to show that he may have moved out of plaintiff’s house months before the accident.”

Under these circumstances, the insurer was “entitled to conduct its own investigation and its finding that [the stepson] was not residing with plaintiff and was not a covered family member as defined in plaintiff’s Policy was reasonably based on evidence it uncovered. Thus, defendant’s denial [of] plaintiff’s UIM claim made on behalf of [the stepson’s] Estate was not an act in reckless disregard of its obligations under plaintiff’s Policy.”

Rule to file a complaint not bad faith

The court also rejected the notion that the insurer acted “outrageously” in filing a rule to file a complaint, after plaintiff had initiated the action by way of writ of summons.  The insurer sought to have a complaint filed because it lacked information, and “instructed plaintiff to file a complaint so that it could develop the facts as to [the stepson’s] residence.” Judge Mannion added, “[i]ndeed, as defendant points out, the court held in Fabrikant v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., [a summary of which can be found here] …. that ‘an insurer’s exercising its procedural right to serve a Rule to File Complaint is not bad faith, absent a showing of clear and convincing evidence that such action was taken in bad faith.’” Here the insurer “was obliged to investigate where [the deceased] was physically residing at the time of the accident in order to properly consider plaintiff’s UIM claim, especially since there was evidence that his residence was at [another] house.” [Emphasis added]

Date of Decision:  April 1, 2021

Fuentes v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania, No. CV 3:19-1111, 2021 WL 1225934 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 1, 2021) (Mannion, J.)

INSURER’S RELIANCE ON ADVICE OF COUNSEL, AMONG MANY OTHER FACTORS FAVORING THE INSURER, DEFEATS BAD FAITH CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.)

 

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)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.)

MAY 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: DELAY ALONE IS NOT SYNONYMOUS WITH BAD FAITH; SWORN STATEMENT NOT PROHIBITED SIMPLY BECAUSE OF PRIOR DEPOSITION IN UNDERLYING CASE; TECHNICAL REGULATORY VIOLATIONS NOT BAD FAITH PER SE (Middle District)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A UIM claimant alleged bad faith based upon: “misstatement of … coverage limits, alleged delay in claims processing, insistence upon a sworn statement under oath …, persistence in collecting medical records and failure to comply with insurances regulations regarding periodic status notices to insureds as evidence of bad faith.”

The insurer wanted summary judgment on the bad faith claim, which the court granted, stating: “that, while both parties indulged in occasional missteps in the process of reviewing and litigating this claim, the essentially uncontested evidence does not meet the demanding, precise and exacting legal standards prescribed under Pennsylvania law for a bad faith insurance processing claim.”

The court observed the “well-established” principle “that it is not bad faith for an insurance company to ‘conduct a thorough investigation into a questionable claim.’” Insurers can be successful in defending against bad faith claim by showing that there were “red flags” warranting further investigation.

Thus, delay alone does not equate to bad faith: “the mere passage of time does not define bad faith. Rather, an inference of bad faith only arises when time passes as part of a pattern of knowing or reckless delay in processing a meritorious insurance claim.”

The court observed that insurers in UIM cases need to deal with the claim against the underlying tortfeasor, which in this case went on for a number of years. Further, the insured did not place the insurer on notice of the UIM claim until nearly 5 years after the accident. Once the claim was made, the parties engaged in an ongoing process to attempt to resolve the dispute.

Further, though the carrier did originally misstate the scope of coverage, this was an understandable mistake and was corrected, resulting only in a brief delay.

In addition, there was nothing untoward in seeking a sworn statement in light of multiple circumstances, including, e.g., incomplete medical information. The court did not accept the argument that no sworn statement was needed because the insured had been deposed two years earlier in the underlying litigation. Further, as stated, each party engaged in some missteps in exchanging medical information, and the insurer was justified in seeking further medical information after having obtained some records.

Next, in evaluating the claim the underlying tortfeasor only settled years after the accident, and for a sum less than policy limits; a factor going to the UIM insurer’s ability to evaluate the claim. The insured had originally demanded over double the UIM policy limits to settle, and then policy limits.

The final argument involved alleged violations of Pennsylvania’s Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act and the Unfair Insurance Practices Act, specifically concerning the regulatory requirement to provide 45 day updates on the status of insurance claims.

The court recognized that a “violation of these insurance rules can be considered when examining a bad faith claim under §8371.” The court then went on: “However, it is also clear beyond peradventure ‘that a violation of the UIPA or the UCSP is not a per se violation of the bad faith standard.’”

Applying these principles, the court concluded: “This case aptly illustrates why technical violations of these state insurance regulations cannot be equated with bad faith. The record before us amply reveals active, extensive and on-going communications …. Our review of the substance of these multiple communications … reveals that even when the communications are viewed in a light most favorable to [the insured], these communications do not support a claim of bad faith shown by clear and convincing evidence.”

The court then observed: “Given that the communications, in their substance, do not allow for a finding of bad faith here, it would be anomalous to conclude that the fact that the communications did not meet the technical frequency requirements mandated by insurance regulations, standing alone, established a bad faith claim in this case.”

Date of Decision: April 10, 2017

Ridolfi v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., No. 15-859, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54267 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 10, 2017) (Carlson, M.J.)

 

MARCH 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: SUMMARY JUDGMENT GRANTED TO INSURER WHERE ITS CLAIMS HANDLING DECISIONS AND CONDUCT WERE REASONABLE (Middle District)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The court described the insured’s UIM bad faith claim as follows: “[the] bad-faith claim is predicated largely on his contention that [the insurer] conducted a dilatory and meandering investigation into his claim, despite having had sufficient information to evaluate the claim and make a coverage decision, which [the insured] argues was obvious given the severity of the injuries he suffered.”

The insurer sought summary judgment on the bad faith claims, its position being “that the claim in this case was unusual and warranted a careful investigation, which suffered from a number of delays that cannot be attributed to the insurer.” Moreover, the insurer adduced evidence calling into doubt the insured’s policy limits demand and the viability of the insured’s claim based on his own conduct.

In granting the insurer’s summary judgment motion, the court observed that if an insurer can defeat the lack of a reasonable basis component of a bad faith cause of action, it can obtain summary judgment. Moreover, in light of the heavier burden of proof in bad faith cases, “the insured’s burden in opposing a summary judgment motion brought by the insurer is commensurately high because the court must view the evidence presented in light of the substantive evidentiary burden at trial.”

Further, “[i]t is not bad faith for an insurance company to conduct a thorough investigation into a questionable claim.” Thus, “courts applying Pennsylvania law have found that an insurer satisfies its burden by showing a reasonable basis’ for investigating a claim, and is thus entitled to judgment as a matter of law, where it demonstrates the existence of certain red flags which prompted it to further investigate an insured’s claim.”

In finding the insurer’s conduct reasonable, the court focused on the putative delays, the nature of the insured’s policy limit demand in light of another potential source of primary insurance, and the insured’s own culpability in the accident leading to his injury. The court went through the alleged delays, and who caused them, in detail.

It also observed that while phrased as a $100,000 demand against the insured’s carrier, the tortfeasor’s insurer had a $500,000 limit, and settled the underlying claim for $240,000. Thus, in effect, seeking the $100,000 UIM limit when combined with the underlying available insurance made the personal injury claim a $600,000 claim, not a $100,000 claim; and again, the underlying claim was settled for far less than the underlying insurer’s policy limit. Moreover, the arbitrators found the insured 1/3 responsible for the accident leading to his own injuries, which provided some substantiation to the insurer’s position that the insured’s claim may not have been viable.

Date of Decision: November 29, 2016

Walter v. Travelers Pers. Ins. Co., No. 4:12-CV-346, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164012 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 29, 2016) (Carlson, M.J.)

 

JANUARY 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: NO BAD FAITH ON RECORD SHOWING REASONABLE INVESTIGATION AND CLAIMS HANDLING; AND COURT OBSERVES THAT WHERE PARTY DOES NOT IDENTIFY AND PROVIDE SUPPORTING FACTS, JUDGES ARE NOT LIKE PIGS, HUNTING FOR TRUFFLES BURIED IN THE RECORD (Middle District)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The court granted summary judgment to the insurer in this bad faith case arising out of a fire at the insureds’ home. While the insurer provided a detailed factual recount from the record to makes its case, the court stated that the insureds “relied upon bare allegations and narrative argument that does little more than summarize bad-faith law in Pennsylvania, without showing how the facts of this particular case could support a claim under the statute.”   The insurer had paid nearly $150,000 after investigating the fire and losses therefrom, but it argued the items put in dispute by the insured were not connected to the fire, which the insured failed to factually refute.

The court observed that “It is not bad faith for an insurance company to ‘conduct a thorough investigation into a questionable claim.’” The insurer will be successful in defending a bad faith claim based on its investigation of the matter by “showing ‘a reasonable basis’ for investigating a claim, and is … entitled to judgment as a matter of law, where it demonstrates the existence of certain ‘red flags’ which prompted it to further investigate an insured’s claim.”

Red flags existed in this case where “the insurance policy had been purchased immediately prior to the fire and the determination by two fire experts that it had been caused by arson. The record also reveals that, rather than wasting time, [the insurer] began an investigation immediately, while at the same time advancing money to the plaintiffs for immediate needs such as clothing and hotel expenses.”

Further, the insurer “promptly undertook investigation into the fire’s cause, the plaintiffs contributed directly to the duration of the investigation by delaying their examinations under oath, which State Farm had requested, roughly two months earlier.” And, “during this investigation, [the insurer] continued to pay the plaintiffs’ housing and living expenses, despite the ongoing nature of the investigation and the possibility that at the end of that process coverage would not be offered.” The insurer ultimately concluded that the matter was not arson, but as stated did not pay every claim the insureds made in connection with the loss.

The insurer routinely and appropriately sent correspondence in response to the insureds, and delays in the process were “not solely or even principally attributable to” the insurer.

Finally, the court rejected the notion that it should review evidence provided by the moving insurer, and “wade into that evidence in order to find some evidence that could rise to the level needed for the plaintiffs to carry their burden on this claim. This invitation is antithetical to good summary judgment practice, and the plaintiffs would do well to remember that “‘[j]udges are not like pigs, hunting for truffles buried in the record.’”

Date of Decision: November 16, 2016

Hoffman v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 4:14-1978, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158795 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 16, 2016) (Carlson, M.J.)

2015 BAD FAITH CASES: THIRD CIRCUIT AFFIRMS SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON BAD FAITH CLAIM WHERE NO DISPUTE OF FACT INVESTIGATION WAS REASONABLE, “INITIAL” SETTLEMENT OFFERS COULD BE MADE SUBJECT TO FURTHER DISCOVERY AND EVALUATION, AND INSURED FAILED TO SHOW SELF INTEREST OR ILL WILL UNDER THE SUPERIOR COURT’S GROSSI DECISION (Third Circuit)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In Miezejewski v. Infinity Auto Insurance  Company, the insured was injured in an auto accident, and not only suffered physical injury, but alleged her physical condition deteriorated over time, causing her to be terminated from her employment.  She claimed that the carrier’s claim evaluation was too low, and failed to consider lost wages.  The district court granted the insurer summary judgment on the statutory bad faith claim.  On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed.

The carrier’s claim representative acknowledged the UIM claim and noted that the policy limit was $15,000. He requested all documents and records supporting the UIM claim from the insureds’ attorney. The representative was provided with various discovery materials discovered in the litigation against the tortfeasor, including  post-accident medical records and a transcript of a deposition of the insured’s former employer’s human relations manager. The claims representative reviewed the documents and questioned whether the insured’s pain stemmed from a pre-existing degenerative condition.

“The medical records, which raised red flags, included the ‘recommendation’ of an orthopaedic specialist who treated [the insured] for post-accident pain in her left knee: ‘I think this accident definitely exacerbated some pre-existing arthritis.’” In addition another doctor concurred, and the insured herself testified about the scope of her arthritis. This “post-accident medical information struck the claim representative as ‘indicative of prior related conditions that [he] would want to review.’” The insured never provided prior medical records; nor did their counsel  “at any point explain the absence of pre-accident treatment information.”

The claim representative also doubted whether the insured’s firing was accident-related. He noted that she was rated as either meeting or exceeding expectations on a performance evaluation four months after the car accident, and it was eight months later that she was fired. The claim representative characterized the former employer’s HR manager’s testimony as conflicting on the idea that she was rated well four months after the accident, but then the accident somehow caused her firing after that.

After a review of materials from the insured’s counsel, the adjuster evaluated the claim at $5-7,000 net the $25,000 from the tortfeasor. “The representative noted, ‘[a]nything more than that could require some additional discovery,’ including [the insured’s] pre-accident medical records and additional information concerning her termination.” Offers of $5,000 and then later $7,500 were rejected.

Applying the Superior Court’s Grossi decision, the Third Circuit stated the following standards to prove statutory bad faith, which must be accomplished through clear and convincing evidence: “The Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that to prevail under the bad faith statute, the insured must show that the insurer did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy and that the insurer knew of or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying the claim.’ An insurer need not engage in fraud to be subject to the statute; however, ‘mere negligence or bad judgment is not bad faith. The insured must also show that the insurer breached a known duty (i.e., the duty of good faith and fair dealing) through a motive of self-interest or ill will.’” [It is interesting to observe here that self-interest or ill-will appear to hold the status of elements of a bad faith claim, whereas there was some prior case law that self-interest or ill will are only evidence of the second element, and not an element themselves.]

Applying this test, the appellate court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the insurer on the bad faith claim.  “Consistent with [the insurer’s] ‘ongoing vital obligation,’ its claim representative acted in good faith—i.e. with a reasonable basis for his assessments and interactions with the [insureds]’ attorney—throughout ‘the entire management of the claim.’” The settlement offers fell within the initial valuation, and the insurer’s representative had emphasized they were not final, and informed the insureds’ counsel, however, that any higher offer would require some additional discovery as to the prior medical history and more information about why the insured was terminated. The court further noted that “after the close of discovery in this lawsuit, which included a deposition of the executive who made the termination decision, [the insurer] tendered to the [the insureds] the $15,000 policy limit they initially sought.”

The court specifically held that it is not bad faith for an insurer to make an initial settlement offer subject to further discovery and evaluation after that discovery. The court concluded that the insurer’s “representative acted reasonably in light of the evidence, both presented and inexplicably withheld.” Further, there was simply no evidence of self-interest or ill will.

Date of Decision:  April 28, 2015

Miezejewski v. Infinity Auto Ins. Co., No. 14-1603, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 6984 (3d Cir.  April 28, 2015)  (Roth, Ambro, and Fuentes, JJ.)

MAY 2014 BAD FAITH CASES: COURT DENIES INSURER SUMMARY JUDGMENT IN BAD FAITH UIM CASE WHERE ISSUES OF FACT REMAINDED ON REASONS FOR DELAY AND APPROPRIATENESS OF RELIANCE UPON CERTAIN MEDICAL PROVIDERS (Middle District)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In Strausser v. Merchants Insurance Group, the insured brought a claim for breach of contract and bad faith on a UIM claim. The insured had received payment from the tortfeasor’s carrier.

The insured asserted that the insurer complicated the settlement process by requesting 33 separate authorizations and tax returns in piecemeal fashion over a period of many months; that one of his medical providers, a psychologist who could not assemble her treatment records because of a computer malfunction, was unreasonably subjected to a lawsuit by the insurer that resulted in further significant and unnecessary delay in arbitrating the UIM claim; and that despite an exhaustive investigation spanning 4½ years, the insurer never obtained any evidence to support its position that the insured had been disabled before the accident at issue.

The insurer contended that it investigated the UIM claim and discovered red flags in the form of a prior accident history and pre-existent financial and psychological problems; but ultimately agreed to arbitrate the UIM claim, promptly paid the award once rendered. The insurer contended that the 43 month delay between the insured’s filing the UIM claim and the award was largely the result of the refusal of one of the insured’s medical providers to respond to a subpoena.

The insurer also asserted that there was delay beyond its control because of a mediator’s personal issues. Finally, the insurer described the parties’ impasse of resolving the matter as a disagreement over the claim’s value.

The court observed that the arbitration award was almost four times the carrier’s best offer, which the insurer explained as one of the vagaries inherent in predicting how a factfinder will respond to a complex set of evidentiary factors. The court stated that assessing the bad faith claimed required its review of the various communications that passed back and forth between the insurer and the insured’s counsel during the negotiations that preceded the filing of the complaint.

The court defined the ultimate question as whether at some point before the date of the arbitrator’s award, did the insurer have enough information to appreciate that its final settlement offer was unreasonably low.

The court generally acknowledged the following positions as correct: (1) that the mere negotiation of a disputed claim does not qualify as bad faith; (2) that the fact of a substantial discrepancy between an insurer’s settlement offer and the amount the insurer ultimately pays on a claim does not, in every such instance, indicate bad faith; (3) that it is not always bad faith for an insurer to rely on the results of an independent medical examination; (4) that the mere fact that there is a substantial delay between the time the claim is filed and the time it is ultimately resolved does not necessarily indicate bad faith; and (5) that insurers are not bound by decisions of the Social Security Administration concerning the scope or cause of a claimant’s physical disabilities.

However, the court found itself compelled to observe, on this motion for summary judgment, that award approached four times the insurer’s best offer and there was evidence that the insurer may have unreasonably delayed its investigation and/or disregarded evidence that should have promoted a higher offer in settlement.

Thus, only the finder of fact should pass on the relative credibility of the parties’ arguments, as the court could not unequivocally say that the parties’ submissions are such that reasonable jurors could conclude only that the insurer had a reasonable basis for conducting itself as it did.

Thus, the court found on the record before it that reasonable jurors could conclude that it was unreasonable for the insurer to refuse to submit the matter to mediation before obtaining a psychologist’s records in the context of a claim predicated predominately on physical injuries.

Similarly, reasonable jurors could conclude that the insurer acted unreasonably in relying upon the opinions of an independent medical examiner who never saw the insured until some 57 months after the accident in question.

Finally, reasonable jurors could conclude that the insurer’s piecemeal requests for 33 authorizations over a period of more than one year constituted an effort to pressure the insured into accepting a settlement that bore no resemblance to his actual damages.

The court made clear that its denying summary judgment should not be seen as an indication that the court thought it likely that the plaintiff will prevail at trial, reiterating the standard that the insured would be required to demonstrate the carrier’s bad faith by a heightened clear and convincing evidentiary standard and the insurer would have the benefit of that charge at trial.

Date of Decision: April 7, 2014

Strausser v. Merchs. Ins. Group, Case No. 3:12-CV-1551, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47718, (M. D. PA. April 7, 2014) (Conaboy, J.)