JULY 2014 BAD FAITH CASES: BERKS COUNTY TRIAL JUDGE AWARDS $18,000,000 IN PUNITIVE DAMAGES AND $3,000,000 IN ATTORNEY’S FEES AND COSTS (Berks County Court of Common Pleas)

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Following in temper the trial court judges’ decisions in Hollock v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 54 Pa. D.&C. 4th 449 (C.C.P. Luzerne 2002), and Corch Construction Company v. Assurance Company of America, 64 Pa. D.&C. 4th 496 (C.C.P. Luzerne 2003), a Berks County Judge has issued a decision imposing $18,000,000 in punitive damages, and $3,000,000 in attorney’s fees and costs, against an insurer for section 8371 bad faith.

In Berg v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, after reversal and remand from a broad bad faith opinion in the Superior Court, Judge Sprecher’s finding of facts and discussion describe an auto damage property claim that could have been resolved for a $25,000 payment for the vehicle’s total loss.  Instead, the carrier was found to have paid $3,000,000 in legal fees to support the propriety of its decision that the car could have been repaired for half that sum. The litigation is over 15 years old, with the dispute starting earlier, and the plaintiff died of cancer prior to this judgment being entered, a fact mentioned to close the Court’s decision.

The Court found as fact numerous examples of bad faith conduct, beginning with the reversal of the appraiser’s initial position to pay the damages as a total loss, subsequent failures to disclose information about the vehicle’s repair and safety condition (including life threatening information), abusing the discovery and litigation process, failing to negotiate in good faith, violating the Unfair Insurance Practices Act, and paying a disproportionate sum in defending the case.

The Court looked closely at the experts who examined the vehicle, and those who testified about claims handling practices in evaluating bad faith.  At its essence, however, was the Court’s finding that that the carrier did not go to these lengths simply to defeat Ms. Berg’s claim in this single dispute. Rather, the Court found, that the carrier’s conduct was part of an overall strategy regarding all of its insureds’ claims for $25,000 or less; a strategy expressly condemned by the Superior Court in Boneberger.

The Court found that this strategy was intended to send a message to insureds and the plaintiffs’ bar that it was not worth their while to bring suit against the carrier in cases worth $25,000 or less.  To quote the Court:

“What Defendant managed to do was send the ultimate message to Plaintiffs, their attorney, and the Plaintiffs’ bar in smaller cases of $25,000 or less. It screamed to the litigation world that it is “a defense minded carrier in the minds of the plaintiff legal community.” It fully accomplished its goal of broadcasting its litigation avoidance strategy. Simply put, what Plaintiff, and more importantly, what lawyer in his right mind, will compete with a conglomerate insurance company if the insurance company can drag the case out 18 years and is willing to spend $3 million in defense expenses to keep the policyholder from getting just compensation under the contract. Its message is 1) that it is a defense minded carrier, 2) do not mess with us if you know what is good for you, 3) you cannot run with the big dogs, 4) there is no level playing field to be had in your case, 5) you cannot afford it and what client will pay thousands of dollars to fight the battle, 6) so we can get away with anything we want to, and 7) you cannot stop us.”

In making its $18,000,000 punitive damages award, the court considered Pennsylvania’s criteria for evaluating a punitive damages claim: the character of the act; the nature and extent of the harm; and the wealth of the defendant.  The Court found that these factors mirrored the U.S. Supreme Court’s “guideposts” on punitive damages: the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and the difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.

On the issue of reprehensibility, the court was most troubled by its finding of the life and safety risks to the insured’s in continuing to drive the vehicle, and that the defendant “knew that the vehicle was returned to Plaintiffs with hidden structural repair failures or in the alternative, … [but] Defendant did not care if the frame and all other repairs it required were done properly, by [the] body shop. Both scenarios equate to acts of omission or commission in bad faith against the Plaintiffs.”

The court also focused on the scorched earth litigation policy, as an institutional policy.  It found the $18,000,000 represented no financial jeopardy to the insurer, constituting only 0.2% of the $9 billion in its excess Statutory Surplus.

The $3,000,000 in attorney’s fees awarded to plaintiff’s contingent fee counsel approximated the fees paid to defense counsel over the life of the litigation. The Court looked at the hours counsel had spent in over a decade on the complex litigation, that counsel themselves had advanced all legal fees and costs with no compensation over that time, and that counsel persevered while being “led through a murky, tumultuous sea of litigation facing deadly obstacles every stroke of the way,” but stayed with the case and its risks, even “when hit between the eyes by Defendant’s insurmountable defense strategy….”

Given all of the facts recited in the Court’s ruling, as well as the foregoing, Judge Sprecher stated that: “in the interest of fundamental fairness this court is reluctant to award counsel fees to the Plaintiffs in any amount less than Defendant paid its own attorneys who were paid timely and without risk.”

Date of Decision:  June 12, 2014

Berg v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, No 98-813 (C.C.P. Berks June 12, 2014) (Sprecher, J.)

Our thanks to the Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention, and for posting a copy of the Opinion.

We would also like to congratulate Daniel E. Cummins of Tort Talk for being awarded PDI’s annual award as Distinguished Defense Counsel.  Well done!

 

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