SEPTEMBER 2017 BAD FAITH CASES: NO BAD FAITH WHERE DENIAL OF PIP BENEFITS STEMMED FROM EXHAUSTION OF THE POLICY LIMITS (New Jersey Appellate Division)

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The insured received medical treatment from several providers after sustaining injuries in a May 2013 auto accident. The policy provided up to $15,000 in PIP benefits per accident. The insurer denied a request for an $8,527.07 payment to Hackensack Surgery Center (“HSC”), as subrogee of the insured, because it determined that the treatment was not medically necessary. HSC then filed a demand for arbitration.

Prior to the arbitration hearing, the insurer advised that only a balance of $2,132.74 remained in available PIP benefits due to prior payments totaling $12,867.26. During the pendency of HSC’s claim, Thermocare Plus, LLC (“Thermocare”), another medical provider of the insured, utilized the insurer’s internal appeals process to seek a reversal of insurer’s earlier denial of its bill totaling $2,032.74. On August 21, 2015, the insurer advised Thermocare that its previous denial was overturned, and that it would process Thermocare’s bill.

On the same day, the insurer received the HSC arbitration award that the HSC treatment was medically necessary, and awarded $8,438.58, plus interest, attorney’s fees, and costs to HSC. However, the arbitration panel stated that the award “was subject to ‘the policy limits for medical payments, still available to [HSC] at the time of the award.’”

Seven days later, the insured paid Thermocare $2,032.74. The insurer then complied with the arbitration award, and processed a payment of $100 to HSC, which reflected the amount of remaining PIP benefits. HSC then filed an order to show cause, arguing that its payment had priority. HSC sought an additional payment of $2,036.99 and attorney’s fees and costs.

The trial judge ordered the insurer to pay HSC an additional $2,036.99, which represented the amount remaining on the arbitration award. The judge reasoned that the insurer did not “engage[] in any sort of bad faith. . .”, but the insurer’s payment decisions did not achieve an equitable outcome. The trial judge denied HSC’s request for attorney’s fees.

On appeal, the insurer argued that the trial judge’s decision ran counter to existing state law because it had already exhausted the PIP policy limits. Furthermore, the insurer argued that it had 35 days to challenge the arbitration award, and thus was under no obligation to comply with the award because it already approved Thermocare’s payment.

In articulating the collateral source rule, which governs the payment of PIP benefits under New Jersey law, the Appellate Division stated that the insurer is required “to pay PIP benefits immediately upon [a] determination that the loss is due and owing, without consideration that the loss may also be covered by another source. . . .”

The Appellate Division held that HSC is entitled to the additional $2,036.99 payment, because HSC’s bill predated Thermocare’s; HSC rendered services prior to Thermocare; the insurer received HSC’s bill prior to Thermocare’s; and because Thermocare’s bill remained unpaid as of the date of the arbitration award. Citing the “broad discretion” given to trial judges when deciding whether to award attorney’s fees, and finding no abuse of discretion, the Appellate Division declined to overrule the judge’s decision to deny HSC its requested attorney’s fees and costs.

Date of Decision: September 5, 2017

Hackensack Surgery Ctr. V. Allstate Ins. Co., No. A-3896-15T3, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2200 (N.J. App. Div. Sept. 5, 2017) (Reisner and Sumners, JJ.)

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