Archive for the 'PA – UIM/UM Cases' Category

BAD FAITH CLAIM STATED WHERE INSURER TELLS INSURED TO “SUE US” AS A MEANS TO GET A MORE COMPLETE RECORD (Middle District)

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In this case, Judge Caputo found plaintiff pleaded a plausible bad faith claim.

The case involved a fatal auto injury, and the issue of whether the deceased’s father, owner of the car at issue, had an applicable policy covering the accident. The other driver was uninsured.

The carrier asked for additional information after demand was made under the father’s policy. The father sent additional information, but the carrier told him to file a complaint, so it could take discovery. The father brought UM claims, as well as breach of contract and bad faith claims.

The complaint alleged the key issue was the deceased son’s residence. The father provided numerous documents showing the son resided with him; but the carrier still declined coverage on the basis that proof of residency was lacking.

Judge Caputo rejected the carrier’s argument that the complaint amounted to boilerplate conclusory allegations of bad faith. Rather, the complaint alleged sufficient “factual matter to withstand a 12(b)(6) motion.” Specifically, “the Complaint indicate[s] that [the insurer’s] coverage decision under the Policy hinged on a determination of whether [son] resided with [father] at the time of the accident. And, upon request, [father] alleges that he provided more than ample documentation to establish that both he and [his son] resided at [the father’s home] at that time.” This included copies of a driver’s license and tax forms.

Allegedly, instead of asking for more information to fill putative gaps in this information, the carrier told father “sue us”. “Although such conduct may ultimately not amount to bad faith, it is plausible based on the factual assertions in the Complaint that [the carrier] acted in reckless disregard of its obligations under the Policy.”

Date of Decision: July 22, 2019

Fuentes v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania NO. 19-CV-1111, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121362, 2019 WL 3288156 (M.D. Pa. July 22, 2019) (Caputo, J.)

EMAILS BETWEEN CLAIMS ADJUSTER AND PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL AFTER INSURER’S DEFENSE COUNSEL’S INVOLVEMENT IS MADE KNOWN: IT’S BEST NOT TO DO THAT, EVEN IF ADJUSTER INITIATES THE CONTACT (Middle District)

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This UIM breach of contract and bad faith case involved an alleged ex parte contact with the carrier’s claims adjuster, after defense counsel had communicated a letter of representation to the insured’s counsel. Three months later after that representation letter, there were direct communications, via email exchanges, between plaintiff’s counsel and the claims adjuster. They discussed the plaintiff’s demands and claims handling events. The carrier brought a motion for a protective order to preclude use of these emails in the case, because of the allegedly impermissible ex parte contacts with a represented person.

The email initiating the communications came from the adjuster to plaintiff’s counsel. The carrier took the position this was inadvertent, asserting the adjuster actually intended the email for her own defense counsel. The court observed it was unclear whether the communication was inadvertent. In any event, the court found whether intended or inadvertent, the result is the same.

The court generally observed that the prudent course would have been for plaintiff’s counsel to communicate with defense counsel regarding the adjuster’s very first email, rather than responding to the adjuster. This clearly would have avoided the ensuing issues.

The court analyzed the contact under Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2, governing direct contacts with represented persons. It concluded the rule was not violated. There was no intent to create an unfair advantage or indicia of dishonest intent. Further, the court observed defense counsel did not make an issue of the email exchange for a year, in demanding that it not be disseminated by plaintiff’s counsel, e.g., to plaintiff’s expert.

However, though there was no rule violation, some remedial measures were warranted. Thus, the court precluded any information obtained from the adjuster via these emails, that could bind the carrier.

The court did deny a request for attorney’s fees on the motion. The communications were limited, and the conduct did not rise to the level of egregiousness that would call for an attorney’s fee award.

Date of Decision: July 17, 2019

Golden v. Brethren Mutual Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania Civil No. 3:18-CV-02425, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118519, 2019 WL 3216629 (M.D. Pa. July 17, 2019) (Saporito, M.J.)

 

BAD FAITH STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS NOT TOLLED, OR RENEWED, BY CHANGE IN THE LAW ON COVERAGE; NO PLAUSIBLE CLAIM PLEADED; BAD FAITH POSSIBLE EVEN IF BENEFIT NOT DUE (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM case was stimulated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision reversing precedent on the household vehicle exclusion. In dismissing the bad faith claim, the court found:

  1. The two-year statute of limitations was not tolled by a change in the law.

  2. The change in the law, which resulted in the insured renewing her demand for coverage, did not re-start the statute of limitations.

  3. Alternatively, the insured failed to plead sufficient facts to set forth a plausible bad faith claim; rather she only made a few conclusory allegations.

The court did have a significant footnote, which addresses the long-standing debate over whether there can be statutory bad faith where no coverage is due. Judge Pappert clearly comes down on the side that bad faith can still exist, noting that “a claim for bad faith pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. § 8371 is a separate and distinct cause of action and is not contingent on the resolution of the underlying contract claim. … Thus, if bad faith is asserted as to conduct beyond a denial of coverage, the bad faith claim is actionable as to that conduct regardless of whether the contract claim survives.” As we have noted before on this blog, other courts dispute this view.

Date of Decision: July 3, 2019

O’Brien v. GEICO Employees Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-01920, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110914 (E.D. Pa. July 3, 2019) (Pappert, 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.)

COURT DISMISSES PREMATURE UIM BASED CLAIMS (Lackawanna Common Pleas)

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The excellent Tort Talk Blog has posted a summary of Judge Nealon’s trial court opinion dismissing a prematurely filed UIM and bad faith action, where the tortfeasor’s policy limits were unknown at the time of filing. A link to this summary can be found here. Our thanks to Dan Cummins, author of the Tort Talk Blog.

INSURED CANNOT RELY ON (1) FACTS OUTSIDE THE COMPLAINT OR (2) CONCLUSORY ALLEGATIONS TO DEFEAT MOTION TO DISMISS; AND INSURER OWES NO FIDUCIARY DUTY IN UIM CONTEXT (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM case involved a dispute over the available amount of coverage under an auto policy.  The complaint included breach of contract, statutory bad faith, and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing claims. The insurer also believed a breach of fiduciary duty claim may have been alleged.  The insurer moved to dismiss all claims.

The insured argued facts outside the complaint in responding to the insurer’s motion to dismiss. These facts may have stated a cause of action for breach of contract had they been properly pleaded, but the court could not consider them in ruling on the motion to dismiss. Thus, the motion to dismiss the contract claim was granted, but without prejudice.

The court also found the insured failed to plead a UIM bad faith claim. As stated, in opposing the motion to dismiss the insured relied on facts not pleaded to argue the carrier improperly refused stacking. Unpleaded facts could not support a bad faith claim, though again, the insured was allowed to amend and presumably assert these factual allegations in a future pleading.

As to the bad faith allegations actually pleaded, these were conclusory and could not make out a plausible bad faith claim.

The conclusory averments included: “[the insurer] committed bad faith by acting with a dishonest purpose and knowingly breaching a duty because of its self-interest …; denying coverage …; collecting premiums and then denying coverage…; and [c]onspiring to create a defense for its own self-interest which its [sic] knows has no factual basis….”

The court further observed there is no fiduciary duty in the UIM context, and dismissed any such claims.

The court finally found the common law bad faith claim to be subsumed in the breach of contract claim, as there is no common law bad faith claim in Pennsylvania outside the contractual duty to act in good faith.

Date of Decision: June 3, 2019

Pommells v. State Farm Insurance, U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 18-5143, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92435, 2019 WL 2339992 (E.D. Pa. June 3, 2019) (Kelly, J.)

TWO NON-PRECEDENTIAL BAD FAITH OPINIONS FROM PENNSYLVANIA’S SUPERIOR COURT: (1) INSUREDS’ CONDUCT AND STATE OF MIND ARE NOT WHAT DETERMINES AN INSURER’S BAD FAITH, RATHER IT IS THE INSURER’S OWN CONDUCT; (2) BAD FAITH PLEADING INADEQUATE

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In Wilson v. Erie Insurance Group, the Superior Court reversed the entry of a judgment for non pros on a bad faith claim which had been in suit for 16 years.

Among other points, the appellate court observed that the focus in bad faith cases is the insurer’s conduct and state of mind, not the insured’s. Thus, the Court observed:

[B]ad faith applies to “those actions an insurer took when called upon to perform its contractual obligations of defense and indemnification or payment of a loss that failed to satisfy the duty of good faith and fair dealing implied in the parties’ insurance contract.” In order to prove bad faith, a plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that the insurer did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy, and knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying the claim. … Thus, the insured’s argue, a bad faith action turns on the reasonableness of the conduct of the insurer, not the insured. …

Similarly, although the [insureds] could not remember the timing of … settlement offers, and the amount of those offers, it did not impair [the insurer’s] ability to defend the case. All of that information is documented in [the insurer’s] files or, in some cases, admitted in the pleadings. The fact that the [the insureds] could not remember if they had any expectations in terms of settlement was of no consequence as their expectations are irrelevant in this bad faith case. See Rhodes v. USAA Casualty Ins. Co., 2011 PA Super 105, 21 A.3d 1253 (Pa.Super. 2011) (holding expectations of the insureds are not material to bad faith liability). It is difficult to imagine how [the insurer] was substantially impaired in its ability to present a defense by the [the insureds’] inability to recall these details. Moreover, if [the insurer] genuinely required that information, it would not have waited until 2018 to take the depositions.

Date of Decision: May 13, 2019

Wilson v. Erie Insurance Group & Erie Insurance Exchange, Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 717 WDA 2018, 2019 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1867 (Pa. Super. Ct. May 13, 2019) (Bowes, Shogan, Strassburger, JJ.)

In Feingold v. State Farm, the Superior Court dealt with an unusual set of procedural circumstances, but we only focus on its discussion of bad faith pleading standards. The court states:

An insured has a cause of action “if the court finds that the insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured[.]” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371. To prove a bad faith claim, the insured must present clear and convincing evidence that (1) the insurer did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy, and (2) the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis in denying the claim. …

Based on our review of his complaint, [plaintiff-assignee] failed to allege either requisite element. First, [plaintiff-assignee] averred that after the UIM arbitration award, [the insurer] informed him that it did not believe the [the insureds] were entitled to UIM damages under their policy. [The] complaint did not allege that [the insurer] was without a reasonable basis for denying benefits. Second, [plaintiff-assignee] averred only that [the insurer] did not advise him of a specific reason for denying the … UIM claims. This is not sufficient to demonstrate that [the insurer] knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis for denying the claim. Accordingly, we find no abuse of discretion or error in the trial court’s determination that the bad faith claim was frivolous.

Date of Decision: May 17, 2018

Feingold v. State Farm Insurance Co., Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 2340 EDA 2018, No. 2833 EDA 2018, 2019 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1931 (Pa. Super. Ct. May 17, 2019) (Kunselman, Murray, Pelligrinia, JJ.)

AN INSURED MUST PLEAD SOME SPECIFIC DETAILS RAISING CONDUCT TO THE LEVEL OF BAD FAITH TO SURVIVE A MOTION TO DISMISS, AND NOT SIMPLY THAT A CLAIM WAS DENIED OR A DEMAND REJECTED (Philadelphia Federal)

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This was the insureds’ second chance at pleading bad faith, after having their original UIM bad faith counterclaim dismissed without prejudice. The earlier post summarizing the first dismissal can be found here.

The second try fared no better. Rather, review of the second amended counterclaim made “clear that any further attempt at amendment would be futile because Defendants cannot plead their bad faith claim with adequate factual support and specificity.”

Once again, the court observed that: “A bad faith claim is ‘fact specific’ and depends upon the insure[r]’s conduct in connection with handling and evaluating a specific claim.” … As the party bringing the bad faith claim under 42 PA. C.S. § 8371, it is [the insured’s] burden to “‘describe who, what, where, when, and how the alleged bad faith conduct occurred.’”

The insureds’ two new paragraphs, set forth below, were deemed conclusory:

  1. Specifically, Insurance Company has taken [the insured’s] testimony and has been provided all of her documentation, which clearly demonstrates that she was covered under the applicable insurance policy and that her damages are far in excess of the UIM coverage amount.

  2. However, despite objective and subjective knowledge that [the insured] was covered under the applicable insurance policy and that her damages are far in excess of the UIM coverage amount, Insurance Company refused to honor their obligations under the insurance agreement for the bad faith purpose of seeking to evade their obligations to the Das family under the insurance contract.

The court observed that these paragraphs lacked “’the dates of any actions’ taken regarding the policy to support their allegation of unreasonable delay, nor have [the insureds] explained, in detail, ‘what was unfair’ about Plaintiff’s interpretation of the policy provisions.”

The court added:

Absent specific details that establish a dishonest purpose, it is not bad faith for an insurer to investigate and protect its interests during litigation. Jung v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 949 F. Supp. 353, 360 (E.D. Pa.1997) (finding that insurer “had a reasonable basis to investigate and deny the claim.”). Moreover, the failure of an insurance company “to immediately accede to a demand for the policy limit” is not, without specific facts, enough to establish bad faith. Smith, 506 F. App’x at 137. [The insureds’] inclusion of two conclusory paragraphs to the Second Amended Counterclaim does not alter that conclusion.

The inability to plead bad faith also required dismissing the punitive damages claim with prejudice as well.

Date of Decision: May 8, 2019

Amica Mutual Insurance Co. v. Das, U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 18-1613, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 78320 (E.D. Pa. May 8, 2019) (Jones, II, J.)

COURT (1) DISMISSES BAD FAITH CLAIM THAT DOES NOT ALLEGE FACTS SHOWING “HOW” THE PUTATIVE BAD FAITH OCCURRED, AND (2) OBSERVES THE INSURED FILED SUIT, WITHOUT NEGOTIATING OR COMMUNICATING WITH THE INSURER, AFTER THE INSURER MADE AN INITIAL OFFER ONLY ONE MONTH PRIOR TO SUIT (Philadelphia Federal)

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We first note that Eastern District Judge Kearney typically writes informative introductions as guides to his opinions, with summaries of the salient conclusions. We quote his introduction to this UIM bad faith case at length (in addition to summarizing the opinion):

“A car insurer’s verbal offer to pay approximately half of its insured’s alleged medical bills as underinsured motorist benefits may allow the insured to sue for breach of the insurance contract. But the verbal offer does not automatically equal bad faith under Pennsylvania’s insurance statutes. The insured must plead much more than her insurer did not offer her all she requested. The insured deciding to sue the insurer for statutory bad faith a month after the verbal offer instead of responding to the offer, opening discussions, or negotiating the import of submitted medical data may sue to obtain negotiating leverage. The tactic must include a complaint with specific facts or we will summarily dismiss this bad faith claim supported by conclusions rather than facts. Absent pleading more than a breach of contract, we today grant the insurer’s partial motion to dismiss the insured’s bad faith and punitive damages claims.”

The insured settled with the other driver, and submitted her medical bills to the insurer, seeking UIM coverage. The medical bills were approximately $14,000 and the insurer offered $7,000 in UIM benefits on February 7, 2019. Less than one month later, the insured sued for breach of contract and statutory bad faith.

Judge Kearney applied the Third Circuit’s decision in Smith v. State Farm in coming to his decision. Smith emphasizes that bad faith cases are fact specific, and must look at the insurer’s conduct vis-à-vis the insured for the matter at issue. Conclusory statements unsupported by factual allegations cannot survive a motion to dismiss.

First, Judge Kearney found the following allegations conclusory:

“[i]) failed to investigate and evaluate her claim in an objective and fair manner,

[ii] used invasive and improper investigative tactics,

[iii] engaged in dilatory claim’s handling,

[iv] failed to promptly offer payment,

[v] failed to provide contracted-for insurance coverage

[vi] subordinated her interest to its financial interest,

[vii] violated its fiduciary duty owed to her,

[viii] compelled her to sue,

[ix] caused her to spend money on litigation and endure anxiety associated with litigation.”

Beyond these patently conclusory allegations, the court further found that the following allegations, while somewhat more specific, still lacked any factual support, and were thus likewise conclusory:

  1. The insurer “acted in bad faith when it played a ‘cat and mouse’ game with her, [and] offered $7,000 on February 7, 2019 though it knew the amount did not ‘cover lawfully recoverable medical bills….” On this point, the court states asserted that the insurer “played a ‘cat and mouse’ game, caused her to spend money on litigation, or caused her anxiety associated with litigation does not plead … bad faith.”

  2. The insurer “failed to provide her with a calculation or summary of how it determined its offer.”

  3. The insurer “’ignored or acted with reckless indifference’ to the medical documents establishing her injuries and entitlement to underinsured motorist benefits.” However, Judge Kearney found the insured “alleges no facts showing how [the insurer] ignored or acted with reckless indifference to reviewing her medical records. To the contrary, [the] $7,000 verbal offer in February 2019 suggests it did review her medical records.”

  4. The insurer “did not have a doctor examine her immediately, [and therefore] it lacked refuting ‘medical evidence or documentation’ and refused to pay benefits without justification.”

The court found the complaint flawed for failing to allege how the insurer “failed to investigate and evaluate her claim in an objective and fair manner, subordinated her interest to its own, or violated its fiduciary duty owed to her.” Further, the insured did “not plead her communications with [the insurer] or [the insurer’s] conduct even though a claim for bad faith is based on [the insurer’s] conduct in handling her claim.” This included that she did “not plead calls or communications since the February 7, 2019 verbal offer of $7,000.”

The court also was concerned with contradictions in the pleadings. It noted the complaint alleged both that the insurer failed to promptly make a settlement offer and that the insurer offered the $7,000 one month after she submitted her medical records to the insurer. The court found these allegations contradictory.

The bad faith count was dismissed without prejudice for failing to allege facts supporting a plausible claim.

Finally, the court dismissed the punitive damages claim, again without prejudice, because the bad faith claim was dismissed. Judge Kearney found that a simple breach of contract, the only claim remaining, cannot be the basis for punitive damages.

Date of Decision: April 22, 2019

Hwang v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-927, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67955, 2019 WL 1765938 (E.D. Pa. April 22, 2019) (Kearney, J.)

SUPERIOR COURT AFFIRMS DEFENSE VERDICT THAT 10 MONTH NEGOTIATION/INVESTIGATION PERIOD DID NOT AMOUNT TO BAD FAITH (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (non-precedential)

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In this UIM case, the insured settled with the other driver for $50,000. The insurer initially determined the injury at issue did not arise from the accident, based on an IME. The insured later aggravated the injury, and his doctor determined the original injury was from the first accident.

The insured demanded the full UIM policy limits ($100,000). The insurer offered $7,500(considering $50,000 had already been paid). Over the next ten months, the insurer increased the offer six times, ultimately paying the $100,000 policy limit.

The insured sued for bad faith. After a six-day bench trial, the trial court found no bad faith under the Pennsylvania statute. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed.

The appellate court relied upon the following trial court findings in upholding the defense verdict:

  1. “In this case, the trial court found that [the insurer] never denied Appellant’s claim.”

  2. “Instead, it determined that ‘[b]y all accounts … [the] investigation was vigorous; [the insurer] sought and received numerous medical records, ordered independent medical examinations and sought to reconcile often conflicting or changing information, all the time communicating with [the insured] and his attorney.’”

  3. “It further opined that ‘the ten-month negotiation period under examination cannot be deemed unreasonable’ where it was ‘undisputed that [the insured’s] treatment was off-again and on-again throughout this period, substantiating [the insurer’s] observation that [the insured’s] claim, from a medical standpoint, was a ‘fluid file’ with ongoing developments that complicated the evaluation process.’”

  4. “As such, the trial court concluded that at ‘[e]ach step of the way, [the insurer] acknowledged and credited new information and responded accordingly [during the tenth month period].”

  5. “The trial court also methodically details the procedural timeline of [the insurer’s] six increasing offers based upon the information as it became available … over the 10-month time period involved.”

Date of Decision: April 18, 2019

Camiolo v. Erie Insurance Exchange, Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 478 EDA 2018, 2019 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1456 (Pa. Super. Ct. April 18, 2019) (Dubow, Olson, Stevens, JJ.)