Daily Archive for April 13th, 2021

NO BAD FAITH WHERE “RED FLAGS” EXISTED THAT COULD UNDERMINE COVERAGE; RULE TO FILE COMPLAINT NOT BAD FAITH (Middle District)

This case involved an auto accident death, and whether the deceased was an insured “family member” under his stepfather’s auto policy.  Coverage depends on whether the deceased resided with the named insured/step-father at the time of the accident.  The stepfather brought breach of contract and bad faith claims, on behalf of his stepson’s estate.

The court denied summary judgment to both parties on the coverage issues, as material facts remained open on the coverage issued.  As Judge Mannion states, “[i]n short, there exist too many disputed material facts as to whether [the stepson] was a ‘family member’ of plaintiff’s household at the time of the accident.”

The court did grant the insurer summary judgment on the bad faith claim, as plaintiff could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard necessary to prove bad faith.

Judge Mannion observed that during its investigation, the insurer discovered that the stepson might not have met the definition of “family member” under the policy.  There were statements from two people that the stepson with living with his girlfriend and her mother, not the stepfather; that the stepfather had removed the stepson from the policy at issue; and that the deceased had purchased his own vehicle with its own insurance policy, and that policy had an address other than the stepfather’s address at the time of the accident.

While the stepson’s driver’s license and tax returns did indicate he resided with his stepfather, the insurer “certainly had sufficient evidence that showed [the stepson’s] physical residence was at [the girlfriend’s] house.”

Red flags oblige the insurer to investigate thoroughly

Looking at all the circumstances, Judge Mannion observed that “[u]nder Pennsylvania law, insurers are permitted to ‘conduct a thorough investigation’ of a questionable claim without acting in bad faith”, and “[w]here an insurer sees red flags’ that cause concern of insurance fraud and prompt an investigation, the insurer has a reasonable basis for investigation, and is therefore not liable for claims of bad faith.”  Here, the insurer “had more than a reasonable basis to investigate where [the stepson] was really residing at the time of the accident since it had ample evidence to show that he may have moved out of plaintiff’s house months before the accident.”

Under these circumstances, the insurer was “entitled to conduct its own investigation and its finding that [the stepson] was not residing with plaintiff and was not a covered family member as defined in plaintiff’s Policy was reasonably based on evidence it uncovered. Thus, defendant’s denial [of] plaintiff’s UIM claim made on behalf of [the stepson’s] Estate was not an act in reckless disregard of its obligations under plaintiff’s Policy.”

Rule to file a complaint not bad faith

The court also rejected the notion that the insurer acted “outrageously” in filing a rule to file a complaint, after plaintiff had initiated the action by way of writ of summons.  The insurer sought to have a complaint filed because it lacked information, and “instructed plaintiff to file a complaint so that it could develop the facts as to [the stepson’s] residence.” Judge Mannion added, “[i]ndeed, as defendant points out, the court held in Fabrikant v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., [a summary of which can be found here] …. that ‘an insurer’s exercising its procedural right to serve a Rule to File Complaint is not bad faith, absent a showing of clear and convincing evidence that such action was taken in bad faith.’” Here the insurer “was obliged to investigate where [the deceased] was physically residing at the time of the accident in order to properly consider plaintiff’s UIM claim, especially since there was evidence that his residence was at [another] house.” [Emphasis added]

Date of Decision:  April 1, 2021

Fuentes v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania, No. CV 3:19-1111, 2021 WL 1225934 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 1, 2021) (Mannion, J.)