JUNE 2012 BAD FAITH CASES: SERVING RULE TO FILE A COMPLAINT ON WRIT OF SUMMONS NOT BAD FAITH; CLAIMS HANDLING NOT UNREASONABLE UNDER CIRCUMSTANCES (Middle District)

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In Fabrikant v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., the court ruled for a carrier that had filed a motion for summary judgment in opposition to the insured’s breach of contract, bad faith, and Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“UTPCPL”) claims. The insured originally filed his complaint in the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas, prompting the carrier to remove to federal court and file a motion to dismiss. The court denied the motion and the case moved to discovery.

The case arose from a fire at the insured’s residence that destroyed his home on Thanksgiving Day, 2009. Initial police reports stated that the cause of the fire was a space heater. One day later, the carrier’s claims manager learned that the insured was having severe financial difficulties, had recently been divorced, and owned a failing business. Because he could not pay his gas bills, the insured had been heating his home exclusively with space heaters. The next day, the carrier’s representatives examined the property and smelled flammable liquids, determining that the cause of the fire was “incendiary.”

Given the insured’s financial situation and the evidence of flammable substances, the carrier then referred the case to its Special Investigative Unit (“SIU”). In his preliminary report, the SIU investigator determined that the fire was set with gasoline. During the entire investigative process, the carrier continued to reserve its rights on the insured’s claims. An SIU report later concluded that the solvent used in the space heater did not show up in the lab samples and was unlikely to have been the ignition source.

Throughout the investigation, the insured was uncooperative, failing to provide information requested by the carrier, despite his contractual obligation to comply. As a result, the carrier refused to waive the one-year suit limitation provision in the insured’s policy.

In response, the insured filed a Praecipe for Writ of Summons in Lackawanna County in late 2010. A month later, the carrier filed a Praecipe requesting that the court issue a Rule on Plaintiff to file a Complaint within twenty days. In response to the carrier’s Rule to File Complaint, the insured filed a complaint alleging breach of contract and bad faith on behalf of the carrier.

Regardless of the difficulties in adjusting the insured’s claim, the carrier paid $154,422.75 for the dwelling claim, $109,975.00 for the personal property claim, and a final $2,500 representing the insured’s jewelry/fur policy limit in early 2011.

The court first examined the insured’s breach of contract allegation, which the carrier defended as moot since it had paid the limits of the insured’s policy. The court agreed, granting summary judgment to the carrier on this count.

It also found that the insured had not proven the carrier’s investigation to be untimely or unreasonable, especially given the circumstances surrounding the claim. Moreover, the insured was uncooperative, delaying the investigation.

The insured also alleged that the carrier was in breach because it forced him to file a Writ of Summons prior to the one-year suit limitation. Had the carrier waived the time limit, the insured claimed, he would not have been forced to file the Writ. However, the court disagreed, ruling that the carrier did not force the insured to litigate by filing a Rule to File Complaint in response to the Writ. The court reasoned that this procedural maneuvering was wholly in accordance with Pa. R. Civ. P. 1037, which provides that “the Prothonotary, upon praecipe of the defendant, shall enter a rule upon plaintiff to file a complaint.” Therefore, the carrier acted in accordance with Pennsylvania law by filing the Rule in response to the insured’s Writ. Nothing in the policy’s suit provision prohibited the carrier from exercising this right, despite the fact it chose not to waive the one-year limitation.

With respect to the insured’s bad faith claims, the court also granted summary judgment to the carrier. The insured’s argument relied upon the carrier’s allegedly “unreasonable handling” of his claim. The court disagreed, citing the numerous “red flags” that warranted an extended investigation. The court also rejected the insured’s claim that the carrier acted in bad faith by adhering to the one-year suit limitation clause. The carrier acted properly in refusing to waive the provision in light of the insured’s uncooperative behavior.

The crux of the court’s holding, however, related to the carrier’s choosing to serve the insured with the Rule to File Complaint. While the court reasoned that forcing an insured to litigate in this manner might represent bad faith in some contexts, there was no evidence of “a dishonest purpose” here. The carrier merely exercised a procedural right, which, given the facts of this case, did not represent bad faith. The court recognized that it might have been better for the carrier to delay requiring the insured to file a complaint since the coverage decision was in its final stages. Yet, the court deemed this decision mere “bad judgment,” refusing to find the carrier’s actions constituted bad faith.

With respect to the insured’s UTPCPL claim, the court ruled that, because the carrier had been up front with the insured, reserving its rights through the process, there was no consumer protection violation.

The court therefore granted summary judgment to the carrier on all counts.

Date of Decision: May 14, 2012

Fabrikant v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67017, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (M.D. Pa. May 14, 2012) (Conaboy, J.)

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