JULY 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: NO BAD FAITH WHERE INSURER’S DENIAL WAS BASED ON AN EXPLICIT AND CLEAR POLICY EXCLUSION, AND CONFUSION OVER NATURE OF CLAIM DID NOT CONSTITUTE BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this case, the plaintiff leased office space to the insured for day-to-day use. In exchange for a rent reduction, the insured agreed to store corporate documents and other assets belonging to the plaintiff in a secured filing cabinet on the property. During a later cleaning and reorganizing project undertaken by the insured, the contents in the filing cabinet were mistakenly disposed of. Plaintiff’s accountant estimated the intrinsic value of the filing cabinet contents at $262,045.

Defendant insurer issued an insurance policy to the insured that covered the office space property. The plaintiff took various informal attempts to settle the loss directly with the insurer. The insurer offered to process plaintiff’s claim as a first-party claim, and required plaintiff to submit certain documentation substantiating the loss. Furthermore, the insurer advised plaintiff that the policy limit for a first-party claim was only $100,000.00, well below plaintiff’s $262,045 claim.

Plaintiff advised the insurer that it would be pursuing a third-party claim, upon learning of the $100,000 first-party claim limit. The insurer, however, had already investigated and analyzed coverage for the loss as a third-party claim, and concluded that the insurance policy excluded coverage for property in the care, custody, and control of the insured. Based on this analysis, the insurer had previously issued the insured a denial letter to the insured on the third-party claim.

The plaintiff brought suit against the insured in the Court of Common Pleas. The insurer denied any duty to defend and indemnify, per the above reasoning. The insured later assigned plaintiff its contract and bad faith rights against the insurer. Plaintiff, as assignee, alleged breach of contract and bad faith.

Specifically, plaintiff alleged the insurer refused to cover the third-party claim, and continually treated plaintiff as a first-party claimant. The court granted the defendant insurer’s motion for summary judgment on the contract claim. The court found that an explicit policy exclusion precluded coverage for the third-party claim because the contents of the filing cabinet were in the care, custody, and control of the insured.

As to the bad faith claim, the court stated that statutory bad faith “is not restricted to an insurer’s bad faith in denying a claim, but rather may extend to a variety of actions such as the insurer’s investigative practices or failure to communicate with the insured.” Still, as the court had ruled the insurer “correctly determined that plaintiff’s claim fell within a policy exclusion … [that] conclusion compels the finding that defendant’s denial of coverage does not constitute bad faith.”

Further, to “the extent that plaintiff alleges that defendant willfully misinterpreted plaintiff’s claim to be requesting first-party property coverage rather than third-party liability coverage, the undisputed evidence of record does not support a reasonable inference that defendant acted in bad faith.” The court concluded: “Plaintiff produced no evidence that defendant lacked reasonable basis for its initial understanding or persisted in this position despite clarification to the contrary. To the contrary, the evidence of record clearly establishes that defendant’s initial confusion was nothing more than mere error. Indeed, defendant’s mistaken characterization of the claim as seeking first-party coverage actually subjected it to more liability exposure—up to $100,000—than it would have under the third-party liability provisions. Given the complete absence of bad faith evidence, I find that this claim fails on summary judgment review.”

Date of Decision: June 27, 2017

Wugnet Publications, Inc. v. Peerless Indemnity Insurance Company, No. 16-4044, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98948 (E.D. Pa. June 27, 2017) (O’Neill, Jr., J.)

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