BAD FAITH CLAIM MAY PROCEED ON SOME CLAIMS HANDLING ISSUES, BUT OTHERS FAIL TO MAKE OUT A CASE (Western District)
In this UIM bad faith case, Judge Conner, sitting in the Western District for this matter, closely analyzed the insurer’s investigation and claims handling in allowing the bad faith case to proceed. While agreeing with the carrier on a few distinct bad faith sub-issues, summary judgment was denied on the bad faith and breach of contract claims.
The insured was a tetraplegic prior to being hit by the tortfeasors’ vehicle. She made claims that there were new injuries and an exacerbation of her existing autonomic dysreflexia (AD). The carrier assigned a senior adjuster, and offered $20,000 on a $1 Million policy.
The key underlying fact is that a claims adjuster, with no medical training, was making critical decisions based on medical reports and records, or an absence thereof, without sufficiently consulting with doctors or someone with medical training who had experience with AD. The insured provided medical records and a report from her own doctor, a specialist in spinal cord injuries, setting out the basis of her claims of new injuries and the details of the exacerbated AD. The adjuster did have access to a consulting nurse, but the nurse had no AD experience, and her advice to obtain an IME allegedly was disregarded.
The adjuster never sought a statement under oath or obtained an IME, despite the consulting nurse’s recommendation to obtain an IME. There was a hot dispute of fact over whether the adjuster orally requested an IME from the insured’s attorney. After finally obtaining all medical records, the carrier offered $25,000 on the UIM claim, and the insured subsequently sued for breach of contract and bad faith. After litigation started, the carrier did obtain an IME. The carrier’s IME concluded that any AD symptoms were the result of preexisting injuries, and not the motor vehicle accident at issue.
Judge Conner gave close analysis to each distinct aspect of the insured’s bad faith claim.
There must be a meaningful investigation.
An “insurance company must conduct a meaningful investigation, which may include an in-person interview, examination under oath, medical authorizations, and/or independent medical examinations.” “Both federal and Pennsylvania courts have indicated that failure to timely obtain an IME is probative of bad faith. … Common sense dictates that an IME is particularly insightful when the insured suffers from a rare, complex, and unique preexisting condition.”
Again, this was summary judgment, so the facts were taken in the insured’s favor as non-movant. That said, it is undisputed there was no pre-suit IME, that the insured had a long medical history, and that her expert doctor stated the accident exacerbated the AD. Moreover, the carrier’s own nursing consultant had recommended an IME, which advice was not followed. The court was concerned “that an adjuster with no medical training, tasked with evaluating a unique medical condition for an insured with a unique medical history, ignored a medical professional’s recommendation.” “Whether this decision was made in bad faith is an issue of genuine dispute, but [the insured] has put forth enough clear and convincing evidence that [the carrier’s] decision stemmed from recklessness rather than mere negligence.”
The court rejects a “harmless error” argument.
The carrier argued that even if it improperly failed to take a pre-suit IME, it did so post-suit and its doctor found no claim existed because all symptoms were the result of a pre-existing condition. The court rejected this theory.
“To begin with, the court is unaware of a harmless error doctrine in Pennsylvania’s statutory bad-faith jurisprudence, and [the carrier] does not point to one. This argument also misconceives our inquiry. We must review the process by which [the carrier] made its decisions and determine whether they were supported by a reasonable basis. That process need not be ‘flawless,’ but it must be thorough enough to provide … a ‘reasonable basis’ for declining to settle [the] claim. Whether [the carrier] had a ‘reasonable basis’ during its investigation is in dispute because [it] did not seek a pre-suit IME. This, coupled with [the consulting nurse’s] disregarded recommendation that [the carrier] obtain an IME, is enough clear and convincing evidence to suggest that [the] settlement strategy lacked a reasonable basis. That [the] post-suit report confirms [the carrier’s] pre-suit determination does not change whether [the carrier] acted in bad faith in making that determination.”
The insurer’s selecting a doctor to conduct an IME does not by itself show bias.
The insured asserted that the doctor selected to perform the IME was improperly biased. The court observed, “[b]ias in selecting a physician to conduct an IME may be relevant to bad faith, but a baseless allegation of bias alone will not suffice.” The insured did not bring out any evidence to support her bias claim. This naked assertion was not sufficient: “[I]t is clear that [the carrier] chose a physician who would not be independent but instead would be biased in his opinions regarding the extent of [the] alleged injuries and complaints as well as the cause of same.” That the doctor did “prior work for insurance companies does not alone establish unlawful bias or bad faith, and [the insured] does not cite on-point authority to show otherwise.”
The court rejects the carrier’s argument that chose not to take the IME to avoid acting in bad faith.
In its final point on the IME issue, the court states: “In a last-ditch effort to combat [the insured’s] claim, [the carrier] maintains that an IME is not required because ‘insurers have been sued for bad faith when they require insureds submit to IME’s to obtain benefits.’ (Doc. 91 at 14 (citing Sayles v. Allstate Ins. Co., 260 F. Supp. 3d 427, 432 (M.D. Pa. 2017)). That may be true in a vacuum, but Sayles arose in a different context: there, the insurer demanded that the insured submit to an IME without seeking leave from the court in violation of Pennsylvania law. Sayles, 260 F. Supp. 3d at 432, 434-38. [The carrier] did not demand (or request) an IME here. Thus, Sayles is unhelpful.”
A failure to consider relevant information could support a bad faith claim.
The court found that whether the carrier “adequately considered [the insured’s] complete medical profile is a material issue, and the evidence on this point is in genuine dispute.” The record did include the adjuster’s testimony that she considered the insured’s medical report, but relied more heavily on the actual medical records. The court stated: “At first blush this sounds reasonable. But [the adjuster] is not a medical professional and is not qualified to decide if a treating doctor’s narrative is irrelevant to an insured’s medical condition. No IME was conducted to place these records in context despite the suggestion of [the nursing consultant]—a medical professional. [The adjuster] may not have ignored facts per se, but it is difficult for an adjuster to favor some evidence (medical records) over others (medical reports) without professional expertise or the findings of an IME.” Thus, the insured had put on sufficient evidence to go forward on the argument that the insurer “based its settlement strategy on an incomplete medical picture.”
The insured did not have a case for bad faith delay.
“To show bad-faith delay, the insured must establish ‘the delay is attributable to the defendant, that the defendant had no reasonable basis for the actions it undertook which resulted in the delay, and that the defendant knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that it had no reasonable basis to deny payment.’” The court observed that “[t]he process for resolving an insurance claim can be slow and frustrating … but a long claims-processing period does not constitute bad faith by itself….”
In this case, the insured cause some of the delay, “which leans against a finding of bad faith.” The court further observed the four-month time delay between the insured’s last contact with the carrier and filing suit, and rejected the argument of delays in connection with transmitting records, the timing of the IME report and the IME itself, and the carrier’s filing various motions in the case.
After finding the bad faith case could go forward, the court also denied the carrier’s summary judgment on the breach of contract claims, under the law of the case theory and because there was a dispute of fact over whether the AD exacerbation resulted from accident or pre-existing condition.
September 26, 2019
Baum v. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:16-CV-623, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164736 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 26, 2019) (Conner, J.)