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In Wolfe v. Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance Company, the Third Circuit was presented with the question of “whether punitive damages awarded against an insured in a personal injury suit are recoverable in a later breach of contract or bad faith suit against the insurer.” The Court predicted that Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court would rule consistent with Pennsylvania public policy that “insurers cannot insure against punitive damages” either directly or indirectly through a later bad faith claim.

However, the Court did give more leeway on pursuing bad faith claims, even in the absence of any damages for unpaid benefits in breach of the insurance contract.

The insured was highly intoxicated at the time he injured the plaintiff in a motor vehicle collision. The insured had $50,000 in insurance, and his insurer defended him against the injured plaintiff’s claims. There were settlement negotiations where the injured plaintiff demanded $25,000 and the insurer offered less than $1,500. Two judges valued the case at $7,500, but the injured plaintiff would not reduce his demand below $25,000, and the insurer would not increase its offer unless the demand was reduced.

During the litigation, the injured plaintiff added a claim for punitive damages in light of the insured’s level of intoxication at the time of the collision, and his prior driving history.  Also during the course of the matter, the insurer gave notice to the insured that the insured could be liable personally for any verdict in excess of the $50,000 policy limit; and that there was no insurance coverage at all for punitive damages, which were not covered under the policy.

The jury awarded less than $50,000 in compensatory damages, which the carrier paid; and $50,000 in punitive damages, which the carrier refused to pay as these were not covered under the policy.  The insured assigned his breach of contract and bad faith claims to the injured plaintiff.  [This is the same litigation in which the Third Circuit certified to the Supreme Court the question of whether bad faith claims could be assigned, which the Supreme Court answered in the affirmative.]

The Court faced two general issues concerning punitive damages: (1) was it error to allow evidence of the punitive damages award from the underlying personal injury suit to establish damages in the bad faith case; and (2) did the insurer have any duty to consider the potential for punitive damages in evaluating settlement of the underlying personal injury suit, as part of how it valued the compensatory damage claim, where the compensatory damages award was paid in full.

The Court found that “in an action by an insured against his insurer for bad faith, the insured may not collect as compensatory damages the punitive damages awarded against it in the underlying lawsuit. Therefore, the punitive damages award was not relevant in the later suit and should not have been admitted.”

In reaching this conclusion, the Court looked to both Pennsylvania principles against insuring punitive damages, and to how other states addressed the issue on potentially indemnifying an insured for punitive damages at this second stage of litigation.  “California, Colorado, and New York have similar prohibitions on the indemnification of punitive damages, and those states’ highest courts have similarly held that an insured cannot shift to the insurance company its responsibility for the punitive damages in a later case alleging a bad faith failure to settle by the insurer.”

The Court specifically rejected the argument that if an insurer breached a common law contractual duty of good faith to settle within policy limits, and the case proceeded with a jury awarding punitive damages, then the punitive damages should be considered as consequential damages from the bad faith breach of an insurance contract. Rather, the Court ruled that punitive damages awarded in the underlying case are not properly considered compensable damages in the breach of contract claim against the insurer.

In sum, “an insurer has no duty to consider the potential for the jury to return a verdict for punitive damages when it is negotiating a settlement of the case. To impose that duty would be tantamount to making the insurer responsible for those damages, which … is against public policy.”

However, these rulings did not result in summary judgment on the contractual and statutory bad faith claims against the insurer.

The Court first looked at the contractual bad faith claim, citing to the leading Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases of Cowden and Birth Center. Looking to Cowden, the Court observed that an insurer “must consider in good faith the interest of the insured as a factor in deciding whether to settle a claim.” (Internal quotes omitted) Citing both cases, the Court further observed that only bad faith, not bad judgment, proven by clear and convincing evidence, can allow an insured to recover the “the known and/or foreseeable compensatory damages of its insured that reasonably flow from the bad faith conduct of the insurer.”

Even after eliminating punitive damages from this equation, the Court found that “if a plaintiff is able to prove a breach of contract but can show no damages flowing from the breach, the plaintiff is nonetheless entitled to recover nominal damages.” This makes summary judgment generally improper if sought solely on the basis that no damages can be proved. “Therefore, even without compensatory damages, an insurer can be liable for nominal damages for violating its contractual duty of good faith by failing to settle,” and summary judgment was properly denied on that ground as to the breach of contract claim.

On the statutory bad faith claim, the Third Circuit treaded onto the ground of whether bad faith claims can still exist when there is no contractual payment obligation remaining.

[Note: There are two general circumstances when this can occur. First, when the insurer eventually provides a benefit due, but has delayed in doing so in bad faith; second, when the insurer owes no benefit, e.g., because coverage is excluded, but has allegedly acted in bad faith in the manner it went about denying coverage. We have previously raised the issue of whether section 8371 was designed to provide a remedy in the second scenario. In this case the Third Circuit, as discussed below, appears to be focusing on the possibility that the insurer has unduly and in bad faith delayed in providing a benefit due, and that if there were no bad faith claim available in such circumstances, then a statutory goal of deterring intentional delays in providing reasonably known benefits due would fail.]

The Court cited the Superior Court’s Berg decision for the proposition that 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371 “sets forth no . . . requirement to be entitled to damages for the insurer’s bad faith,” and that “the focus in section 8371 claims cannot be on whether the insurer ultimately fulfilled its policy obligations, since if that were the case then insurers could act in bad faith throughout the entire pendency of the claim process, but avoid any liability under section 8371 by paying the claim at the end. . . . [T]he issue in connection with section 8371 claims is the manner in which insurers discharge their duties of good faith and fair dealing during the pendency of an insurance claim, not whether the claim is eventually paid.” (Emphasis in original)

Thus, “the policy behind section 8371—deterring insurance companies from engaging in bad faith practices—is furthered by allowing a statutory bad faith claim to proceed even where the insured has alleged no compensatory damages resulting from that conduct.” Under these principles, “removal of the … punitive damages award as damages in this suit has no bearing on the damages that can be awarded under the statutory bad faith claim.”

The Court then provided a footnote to further explain its position:

Recovery on [the] breach of contract claim and [the] statutory bad faith claim are entirely independent of one another. Section 8371 allows punitive damages awards even without any other successful claim. … (“[Because] claims under section 8371 are separate and distinct causes of action and as the language of section 8371 does not indicate that success on the contract claim is a prerequisite to success on the bad faith claim, . . . an insured’s claim for bad faith brought pursuant to section 8371 is independent of the resolution of the underlying contract claim.”)…. Furthermore, [the] claim under section 8371 does not affect [the insured’s] ability to obtain compensatory damages, if they exist, under a breach of contract claim. “The statute does not prohibit the   award of compensatory damages. It merely provides an additional remedy and authorizes the award of additional damages.  ….

The Court further observed that compensatory damages are not required to succeed on a statutory bad faith claim, which only permits recovery of punitive damages, interest, and costs.

In sum, the Court denied summary judgment on the statutory bad faith claim because the inability to collect punitive damages as compensatory damages, standing alone, does not preclude recovery on the bad faith claim.

Date of Decision: June 12, 2015

Wolfe v. Allstate Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., No. 12-4450, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 9876 (3d Cir. June 12, 2015) (Rendell, Jordan, Lipez, JJ.)