PENNSYLVANIA SUPERIOR COURT ADDRESSES CONCLUSORY BAD FAITH ALLEGATIONS IN SUMMARY JUDGMENT CONTEXT (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (Not Precedential)

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We do not often see Pennsylvania’s state courts addressing “conclusory” allegations in bad faith cases. In this case, the Superior Court makes clear that conclusory assertions cannot forestall summary judgment on a bad faith claim.

The employee plaintiffs/insureds demanded underinsured motorist coverage under the employer’s policy.  They asserted that there were $1,000,000 in UIM limits. The carrier countered that the employer had selected and signed off on a $35,000 UIM coverage limit, and the insurer ultimately paid the $35,000.  The trial court agreed with the carrier on the facts of record that coverage was only $35,000, and granted summary judgment on the breach of contract claim. The Superior Court affirmed, finding the employer’s UIM sign-down enforceable and effective.

As to the bad faith claim, the trial court found “there can be no dispute that [the insurer] had a reasonable basis for denying the … claim for coverage beyond $35,000, as we have already determined the trial court did not err in concluding that the UIM policy limit was $35,000.” The panel then looked at the bad faith claim based upon the insurer’s timeliness in dealing with the claim. This appears to be an argument there was a bad faith delay in paying the $35,000 admittedly due.

The insureds argued the insurer failed “to promptly offer any payment,” engaged “in dilatory and abusive claims handling,” acted “unreasonably and unfairly by withholding underinsured motorists benefits justly due and owing,” subordinated “the interests of its insured and those entitled under its insured’s coverage to its own financial monetary interest,” and caused the insured to spend money in bringing their claims.

The Superior Court again affirmed the trial court’s granting the insurer summary judgment, favorably citing the trial court’s reasoning.

First, the trial court rejected the insureds’ Nanty-Glo argument. Further, the insureds “provided no evidence to support their Bad Faith claim beyond conclusory assertions.” The record showed the insureds made a $900,000 demand on what the insurer (correctly) believed was a $35,000 policy.  The record also revealed the insurer was attempting to get information from the insureds to resolve the claim, and that the carrier tendered the $35,000 limit multiple times, which offers were refused or ignored.

The Superior Court favorably quoted the trial court on how to address conclusory bad faith allegations in responding to a summary judgment motion. The trial court had relied on Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent in reaching its conclusion:

“Allowing non-moving parties to avoid summary judgment where they have no evidence to support an issue on which they bear the burden of proof runs contrary to the spirit of [Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure] 1035. We have stated that the mission of the summary judgment procedure is to pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for a trial. We have a summary judgment rule in this Commonwealth in order to dispense with a trial of a case (or, in some matters, issues in a case) where the party lacks the beginnings of evidence to establish or contest a material issue…. Forcing parties to go to trial on a meritless claim under the guise of effectuating the summary judgment rule is a perversion of that rule. [Emphasis added]

Thus, we hold that a non-moving party must adduce sufficient evidence on an issue essential to his case and on which he bears the burden of proof such that a jury could return a verdict in his favor.”

In this case, the Superior Court found that plaintiffs’ “lacked ‘the beginnings of evidence’ concerning how [the insurer] engaged in dilatory and abusive claims handling, and subordinated the interests of its insured and those entitled under its insured’s coverage to its own financial monetary interest.”  The insureds failed to adduce sufficient evidence of record concerning delays, or evidence that any delay in tendering settlement was unreasonable or done with knowing or reckless disregard that the delay was unreasonable.

The underlying dispute over whether coverage was $1,000,000 or $35,000, and the insureds insistence on pursuing large six figure demands, contributed to the circumstances of any delays.

Date of Decision:  September 11, 2020

Beach v. The Navigators Insurance Company, Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 1550 MDA 2019, 2020 WL 5494530 (Pa. Super. Ct. Sept. 11, 2020) (Musmanno, Panella, Stabile, JJ.)

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