APRIL 2018 BAD FAITH CASES: NO BAD FAITH WHERE FIRST PARTY CLAIM HANDLING CONDUCT WAS REASONABLY DEBATABLE, WITH COURT ADDRESSING CLAIM HANDLING, ALLEGED PAYMENT DELAY, RHETORICAL ARGUMENTS, AND ALLEGED CLAIM HANDLER INCOMPENTENCE (New Jersey Federal)
This is a bad faith case arising out of Superstorm Sandy damage to the insured’s home. Coverage for the full loss was denied, and breach of contract and bad faith claims followed. This opinion involves the insurer’s summary judgment motion on the bad faith claim. Judgment was entered on the bad faith claim for the insurer.
Bad Faith Standards
New Jersey recognizes bad faith claims for “both bad faith in denial of benefits and bad faith in delay of processing of claims.” A bad faith claim might exist where payment was intentionally and unreasonably delayed on an undisputed claim. The test is whether a claim is “fairly debatable”. If the insured cannot establish “as a matter of law a right to summary judgment on the substantive claim [e.g., the breach of the insurance contract]” there is no actionable bad faith claim. The plaintiff has to show the “absence of a reasonable basis for denying benefits of the policy and the defendant’s knowledge or reckless disregard of the lack of a reasonable basis for denying the claim.”
In the first party context, under New Jersey law: “Although a fairly debatable claim is a necessary condition to avoid liability for bad faith, it is not always a sufficient condition. Rather, we are satisfied that the appropriate inquiry is whether there is sufficient evidence from which reasonable minds could conclude that in the investigation, evaluation, and processing of the claim, the insurer acted unreasonably and either knew or was conscious of the fact that its conduct was unreasonable.” In this case, the “principal issue presented is whether Plaintiff has adduced factual evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that [the insurer] lacked a fairly debatable reason for denying the disputed portion of the claim. Because in this summary judgment motion [the insurer] has set forth the factual basis for its determinations of coverage and loss, and because Plaintiff has not come forward with evidence that Plaintiff’s entitlement to recover for these losses was so clear that it was not fairly debatable, Plaintiff will be unable to prove its bad faith claim in Count 2 and summary judgment will be granted….”
No bad faith conduct on the record in claims handling
Specifically, the court observed that the insured did not seek summary judgment on the breach of contract claim, and the court itself was not going to find it undisputed that the contract was breached. This alone would appear to be fatal to the insured’s opposition under the reasonably debatable standard. Further, the court observed that the insurer considered the opinions and advice of expert consultants in the claims handling process. The court also listed a variety of “plausible” steps the insurer took to adjust the claim.
No bad faith delay
The court further rejected the insured’s delay argument. It found the insurer promptly investigated the damages, retained experts and a licensed contractor to evaluate the claims, and shared its findings with the insured throughout the process. The insured failed to submit responsible estimates during the process with supporting documentation, and was unresponsive for many months at a time, included a delay in submitting a sworn statement in proof of loss.
Rhetorical assertions without support unsuccessful
The court addressed “Plaintiff’s rhetorical assertions that bad faith is demonstrable from assigning incompetent and inattentive claims adjusters who were ‘repeatedly told … to sit back and wait for the statute of limitations to run out in the hopes that the Plaintiff would miss the filing deadline’….” There was no support for this assertion and, to the contrary, the insured’s large loss director instructed the claim adjuster “to remind Plaintiff’s representatives in writing that the policy contained a two-year suit limitation condition” and the adjuster did so by writing a letter calling “attention to the suit limitation in advance of the approaching deadline.”
Alleged incompetent adjusting did not affect this claim
Early in the claims handling process an adjuster was criticized by his superior for not documenting the file. That adjuster was replaced. However, that this adjuster “temporarily failed to address the potential claim does not give rise to a material factual dispute, as it is undisputed that proper investigation was undertaken, results were shared and explained to Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s agent, and the claim file was put squarely on track as directed by the management. That there remains an area of disputed claims, as alleged in Count One, does not imply that those disputes were caused by [the insurer’s] deliberate indifference to a proper investigation and claims adjustment process.”