MARCH 2016 BAD FAITH CASES: (1) BAD FAITH CLAIM FOR FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE SETTLEMENT DEMANDS WITHIN POLICY LIMITS REQUIRE SAME PROOF UNDER PENNSYLVANIA OR NEW JERSEY LAW; (2) POTENTIAL LOWER STANDARD FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES IN PENNSYLVANIA NOT A BASIS TO DISMISS CLAIM; (3) ACTIONABLE CLAIM AGAINST AN INSURER’S MANAGING AGENT FOR CONTRIBUTION (New Jersey Federal)

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In Allegheny Plant Services v. Carolina Casualty Insurance Company, the insured was subject to personal injury tort claims. The carrier provided defense counsel, and the case went to trial.  The jury verdict exceeded policy limits by nearly $700,000.  The insured brought suit against its insurer for failing to settle and/or inform the insured that there was an opportunity to settle within policy limits.  The insurer also sued appointed defense counsel.  Defense counsel joined the insurer’s agent that was allegedly engaged to monitor and manage the defense litigation, on a theory that the agent knew the policy limits and failed to manage the litigation prudently.

Although the case was transferred to New Jersey, the insured brought a Pennsylvania statutory bad faith claim against the insurer. The insurer sought to dismiss that claim on summary judgment. The court denied that motion.  Likewise the court denied the managing agent’s motion to dismiss defense counsel’s claim for contribution.

The court applied a conflict of laws analysis on the bad faith claim. Although New Jersey’s insurance bad faith claim is based in common law (the “fairly debatable” standard), not statute, the basic standards of proof are the same:  the lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits, and a knowing or reckless disregard of that fact in denying benefits. The court observed that Pennsylvania’s courts had rejected proof of self-interest or ill-will as a third element.

The court then addressed the potential conflict between Pennsylvania’s right to punitive damages under the Bad Faith statute, and New Jersey’s general statute on punitive damages. It found a lack of clarity in the law on when punitive damages may be allowed under Pennsylvania’s Bad Faith statute, i.e., can punitive damages be awarded solely on a finding of statutory bad faith, and is that a different, lower, standard than an award of traditional punitive damages?

The court then stated: “I find it plausible that Pennsylvania would permit, if not require, a punitive damages award based on a bad faith verdict. Such a verdict, however, would have to carry within it the factual basis for a traditional award of punitive damages. Otherwise, punitive damages would be awarded in every bad faith case; if that had been intended, I would have expected a much clearer legislative statement to that effect. At any rate, such a conflict as to punitive damages—even if it existed—would not require me to dismiss Count 3, the relief sought here.”

Without resolving this critique of Pennsylvania law, the court went on to observe that should this issue arise at trial, Pennsylvania and New Jersey law could apply to proving bad faith, as both state’s laws are identical on that issue.  And, if it came down to it at trial, the parties could again move to determine which state’s law applied to punitive damages. Thus, there was still no basis to dismiss the case under either state’s law. Further, were there a true conflict, the court concluded that Pennsylvania law would apply; which would seem to resolve the punitive damages issue, but the court appeared to leave that open up to the time of trial.

As to the managing agent’s motion to dismiss, the court observed that the key to a viable claim for contribution among joint tortfeasors  is “common liability to the plaintiff at the time the cause of action accrued.” The court found that defense counsel’s third party complaint against the alleged agent adequately set forth a claim that that the managing agent contributed to a unitary injury suffered by the insured. Factual issues concerning the ability to control the defense, and the alleged agent’s contractual relations with the insurer, among other things, could not be disposed of at the motion to dismiss stage.

Date of Decision:  March 17, 2016

Allegheny Plant Servs. v. Carolina Cas. Ins. Co., No. 14-4265, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35189 (D.N.J. Mar. 17, 2016) (McNulty, J.)

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