(1) NO WANTON CONDUCT UNDER MVFRL INVOKING TREBLE DAMAGES AND SUPER INTEREST; (2) NO STATUTORY BAD FAITH WHERE (i) MVFRL PREEMPTS BAD FAITH STATUTE; (ii) THERE IS ONLY A VALUATION DISPUTE; (iii) INVESTIGATION REASONABLE; (4) BIAS CLAIMS ARE MERELY SUBJECTIVE (Philadelphia Federal)
Plaintiff was injured in an auto accident and made both PIP claims and underinsured motorist (UIM) claims. She found the carrier’s settlement offers and negotiations wholly inadequate, and brought statutory bad faith claims, and claims for damages under the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL) seeking treble damages and super interest for the insurer’s allegedly “wanton” conduct concerning her medical benefit claims.
The court found the insured could proceed on her PIP claim under a breach of contract theory. However, the MVFRL claim for treble damages and 12% interest, under 75 Pa. C.S. § 1797(b)(4), was dismissed without prejudice. Judge Pappert held plaintiff had not pleaded “wanton” conduct, a predicate for gaining the extraordinary remedies under this statute.
The insurer also asserted the MVFRL count actually alleged a breach of the duty of good fair dealing, and moreover constituted an improper effort to get relief under the Bad Faith Statute. It asked the court to strike certain averments related to this putative backdoor bad faith claim.
The court rejected this argument: “Although Count II appears to assert a claim under the MVFRL … it also appears to assert a claim for … alleged breach of the implied contractual duty to act in good faith related to her PIP coverage. … Because [the insured] may pursue a claim for breach of her policy’s PIP coverage obligations and because motions to strike are ‘not favored and usually will be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties,’ the Court will not strike her allegations regarding the duty of good faith and fair dealing in Count II.”
MVFRL Claims and the Bad Faith Statute
The court then addressed the statutory bad faith claim.
The court first observed that unless the insurer’s “conduct falls outside of the scope of § 1797 of the MVFRL, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1797, and involves a bad faith abuse of the process challenging more than just the insurer’s denial of first party benefits, the MVFRL preempts any statutory bad faith claim concerning … PIP benefits.” The court made clear, “To the extent that the gravamen of [the] bad faith claim is the denial of first party medical benefits and nothing more, [the insurer’s] alleged conduct is within the scope of § 1797 of the MVFRL and therefore [she] is precluded from bringing such a claim.”
However, “[s]ection 8371 bad faith claims remain cognizable when the basis of a benefits denial does not relate to the reasonableness and necessity of treatment, or when an insurer’s conduct is obviously not amenable to resolution by the procedures set forth in Section 1797(b).”
Dispute Over Valuation not Bad Faith
The insured alleged the insurer delayed her claim and denied its value. The court found these allegations did not equate to allegations that the insurer actually deny the UIM or PIP. Rather, there was a dispute over valuation.
Analyzing the matter as a valuation dispute, Judge Pappert found the insured did not allege “facts sufficient to show [the insurer’s] valuation is unreasonable.” The insured’s subjective beliefs as to her claim’s value “is not indicative of bad faith because … subjective belief as to the value of the claim may reasonably, and permissibly, differ.”
Rather, “[t]o state a bad faith claim, [an insured] must do more than call [the insurer’s] offers low-ball.” These kind of conclusory and subjective allegations “suggest nothing more than a normal dispute between an insured and insurer.”
Low but Reasonable Offers Not Bad Faith
Bad faith does not exist “merely because an insurer makes a low but reasonable estimate of an insured’s damages.” Nor does a refusal “to immediately accede to a demand for the policy limit … without more, amount to bad faith.”
Insurer had Reasonable Basis to Deny Claim/No Adequate Claim of Bias
Next, Judge Pappert rejected the argument that the insured adequately pleaded the insurer lacked a reasonable basis to deny the claim’s value. The insurer requested medical records and had an IME performed. It assessed the insured’s injuries based on that information.
The court did not give weight to conclusory allegations the doctor performing the IME was “a biased IME doctor” and “well-known as [someone] who provides so-called Independent Medical Examinations exclusively for and apparently to the liking of insurance companies….” Further, that the plaintiff’s own doctor said she needed surgery did not, by itself, support a bad faith claim. The insurer was not unreasonable in relying on the IME doctor’s assessment that the symptoms requiring surgery were unrelated to the accident at issue.
“In the absence of any supporting facts from which it might be inferred that [the] investigation was biased or unreasonable, this type of disagreement in an insurance case is not unusual, and cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.”
The court, however, permitted plaintiff to amend the statutory bad faith claim “to the extent it is not preempted by the MVFRL and to the extent she is able to allege facts stating a plausible claim for relief.”