MARCH 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: FINEMAN, KREKSTEIN & HARRIS OBTAINS SIGNIFICANT VICTORY FOR INSURER IN DEFEATING UIM BAD FAITH CLAIM AT TRIAL IN PHILADELPHIA’S COMMERCE COURT (Philadelphia Commerce Program)

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In a bad faith case that actually went to trial, in Philadelphia’s Commerce Court, Fineman, Krekstein & Harris won a finding in favor of the insurer in a hard fought case, involving a myriad of bad faith issues. The court issued a 37 page Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, vindicating the positions argued and case presented for the insurer.

The insureds argued, among other things, that there were undue delays in claims handling, adjusters did not keep claims files in accordance with policy manuals, and reserves were improperly set. Among other things, the insurer focused its arguments on the timing of the insureds first making a demand for payment; reliance upon competent counsel in reaching decisions; and that the insureds’ original demand for the $1,000,000 policy limits was never lowered through the course of the UIM case.

In its conclusions, among other things, the court observed there is no heightened duty to insureds in the UIM context, and that even negligence or bad judgments do not equate to bad faith. The court made clear that delay is not bad faith per se, and that evaluating delay includes an analysis of the reasonableness of denying a claim. Moreover, even if unreasonable, to constitute bad faith the delay must be knowing or reckless. Bad faith is measured from the time demand is made.

The court also stated that undervaluing a claim is not bad faith if there is a reasonable basis for the valuation. Thus, a low but reasonable valuation is not bad faith. A settlement offer in the insurer’s low range of estimated value also is not bad faith. On the facts of this case, the court observed that the insurer never took the position that it would pay nothing on the claim, and as described below, made a number of offers.

The court found it was reasonable under the circumstances for the insurer to decline mediation two weeks before the arbitration was to take place. The insurer’s counsel testified that it was too late to mediate, and that there was no indication the insureds would lower their demand. The court observed that in evaluating bad faith, courts weigh the insureds’ decision not to negotiate down from a policy limit demand, even though the insured is not required to negotiate. The court found that settlement almost always requires a mutual give and take, which did not occur in this case.

The insurer was required to pay $600,000 under the UIM arbitration award. The court found, however, there was no evidence the insureds would have accepted $600,000 to settle the case prior to arbitration.

The court also took into consideration the actual difference between the ultimate UIM arbitration award, the insurer’s final offer, and the insured’s demand. In this case, the insured’s final offer was approximately $182,000 below the ultimate award, but the insureds’ policy limit demand was $400,000 greater than the award. The court found the insurer’s final settlement offer was reasonable, and that earlier offers for lesser sums were permissible interim offers. The court explained the reasonableness of each offer in its context.

Among other facts addressed in the court’s conclusion of law, the court gave weight to the fact that the insurer’s UIM defense counsel received a report from his own expert that counsel had not requested. Furthermore, defense counsel disagreed with the report’s conclusions. However, instead of withholding the report, counsel and the insurer’s representatives produced it to the insureds.

Moreover, the insurer used a high-end number from this same report in coming up with the basis for its final offer. The arbitration panel also used that number, rather than the insureds’ expert’s even higher number, in coming up with its arbitration award. The court stated that the insurer did not have to base its decision upon the insured’s expert rather than the insurer’s own expert.

The court found the insurer’s investigation was lengthier than it should have been, but did not constitute bad faith. The court found the insurer’s request for an independent medical examination was not evidence of bad faith. Nor was this a case of setting a reserve and never moving from that number during the course of the claim. The court found no discrepancy in the manner of setting reserves and the nature of the investigation that showed intent or recklessness in undervaluing the claim. As to the claims handling, even if unduly lengthy or negligent, this did not constitute bad faith.

The court further found that the carrier’s representatives sought UIM defense counsel’s advice in good faith, and that counsel was competent to give advice on defense and valuation of the claim. Although this was not a strict advice of counsel defense, since the insurer’s representatives ultimately made their own decisions, the thorough nature of counsel’s advice, when considered as a component of their decision making, supported the reasonableness of their claims handling decisions.

Date of Decision: March 21, 2017

Richman v. Liberty Insurance Underwriters, Sept. Term 2014, No. 1552, Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia (C.C.P. Phila. Mar. 21, 2017) (McInerney, J.) (Commerce Program)

S. David Fineman of Fineman, Krekstein & Harris was lead defense counsel.

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