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

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

The Court’s Factual Findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was Coverage for Theft, Vandalism, and Malicious Mischief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erroneous Red Flags

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure to Fully Investigate the Red Flags

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

The Insurer Relied on its Expert Report for the Wrong Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Date of Decision: December 27, 2019

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

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

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