Archive for the 'PA – Discovery and Evidence' Category

OUR 1800TH POST: (1) RESERVES DISCOVERABLE; (2) COMMUNICATIONS RETAINING COUNSEL NOT DISCOVERABLE; (3) ISO CLAIM HISTORY REPORT DISCOVERABLE; (4) ASSET REPORT ON TORTFEASOR NOT DISCOVERABLE; (5) CLAIM EVALUATION REPORT ONLY HAS LIMITED WORK PRODUCT PROTECTION; (6) INTERNAL NOTES FULLY PROTECTED ON ATTORNEY COMMUNICATIONS, BUT LIMITED WORK PRODUCT PROTECTION; (7) DEPOSITIONS MAY INQUIRE INTO AREAS WITH ONLY LIMITED WORK PRODUCT PROTECTION (Philadelphia Federal)

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It has been nearly 15 years since our first bad faith blog post, summarizing an opinion by the late Judge Albert Sheppard.  Today’s summary is our 1,800th post

This Eastern District opinion addresses discovery issues in a UIM bad faith case, including document production and issues arising out of plaintiff seeking to depose the insurer’s claim adjuster and corporate designee.  Magistrate Judge Perkin had already addressed numerous discovery issues in this case in an earlier opinion, summarized here, and now addresses the remaining issues after conducting an in camera review of certain documents on the insurer’s privilege log.

Reserves discoverable in bad faith valuation dispute

Magistrate Judge Perkin observed, “District Courts within the Third Circuit are split on the question of whether reserves are discoverable in bad faith cases.”  He relied on Middle District Magistrate Judge Carlson’s Barnard decision, summarized here, holding that in bad faith cases, reserves are discoverable if the bad faith claim is based on a valuation dispute, rather than outright coverage denial.  As the present case involved a valuation dispute, reserves were discoverable.

Magistrate Judge Perkin further rejected the argument that the reserves were protected work product.  Applying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, he found that the insurer did “not argue that its reserves were prepared in anticipation of litigation or other than in the normal course of business.”

Internal emails regarding receipt of this lawsuit and assignment to legal counsel not discoverable

The insurer “withheld internal emails regarding receipt of the lawsuit and assignment to its legal counsel. Defendant’s privilege log indicates that these documents were withheld on the grounds that the information is ‘work product, mental impression, confidential, and post litigation.’ After in camera review, this Court finds that the documents have been appropriately withheld. These documents, dated after the lawsuit was filed, are protected by both attorney-client privilege and the work-product doctrine as the communications were made with the purpose of seeking legal advice and discuss litigation strategy.”

ISO claim search report discoverable

“[T]he ISO Claims Search Database is a nationwide database utilized by insurance companies to track claims history and detect fraud. Defendant withheld the report on Plaintiff’s claims history on the basis that it is not relevant.” The court found the information “relevant to Plaintiff’s bad faith claim to the extent that it is a factor Defendant considered in evaluating Plaintiff’s Underinsured Motorist Claim.”

Asset report for consent to settle/waiver of UIM subrogation purposes not discoverable

Defendant withheld the asset search of the tortfeasor in the underlying motor vehicle accident action, on the basis of irrelevance and confidentiality. The court agreed it was irrelevant to the bad faith claim at issue

Insurer’s evaluation report for plaintiff’s UIM claim: no attorney-client privilege protection and limited work product protection

The insurer withheld its evaluation report on the UIM claim based on “work product, mental impression, attorney-client, confidential, and post litigation.” Magistrate Judge Perkin found “these documents consist of not only the final evaluation of Plaintiff’s claim prepared by claims personnel … but also a detailed history of all updates made by claims adjusters to the report beginning on … the date Plaintiff settled with the tortfeasor.”

First, the court found these documents were not subject to the attorney-client privilege. “[T]he privilege bars discovery of confidential communications made between attorneys and clients for the purpose of obtaining or providing legal assistance to the client. …  The privilege does not apply to the ‘disclosure of the underlying facts by those who communicated with the attorney.’” “The evaluation report contains no communications between Defendant and its counsel. Rather, the report contains a series of notations regarding the claim by the claims adjuster….”

Next, Magistrate Judge Perkin dove deep into an analysis of the work product doctrine, addressing the difficult question of when the normal duty to investigate a claim turned into a period where the insurer reasonably anticipated litigation.

Thus, to determine the work-product doctrine’s applicability:

  1. A court must “first establish when Defendant reasonably anticipated litigation.”

  2. “The party asserting work product protection must demonstrate that it subjectively anticipated litigation, and that the anticipation was objectively reasonable.”

  3. “While the court must initially focus on the state of mind of the party preparing, or ordering preparation, of the document, that person’s anticipation of litigation must be objectively reasonable for the work product protection to apply.”

  4. “A party’s anticipation of litigation is objectively reasonable if ‘there existed an identifiable specific claim or impending litigation when the materials were prepared.’”

Magistrate Judge Perkin looked for guidance in Judge Sanchez’s 2014 Borgia opinion, summarized here, and Judge Leeson’s 2016 Wagner decision, summarized here.

In the present case, plaintiff’s counsel first demanded policy limits on January 12, 2018, and the insurer engaged counsel to investigate and evaluate the claim on April 19, 2018.  After being retained, the insurer’s counsel conducted a statement under oath, subpoenaed medical records and assisted in obtaining an IME.

“On July 20, 2018, after the Statement Under Oath was completed, Plaintiff’s counsel again made a demand for policy limits, though she made no threat or mention of litigation. Reviewing the e-mails between counsel, it appears that, from July 20, 2018 through February 27, 2019, the communications involved only requests for authorization of medical records and scheduling of the independent medical examination. On August 26, 2019, the independent medical examination occurred. Shortly after, on September 3, 2019, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit.”

Counsel’s communications indicated plaintiff sought full UIM limits but never threatened litigation. Further, “the communications between counsel from July 20, 2018 through February 7, 2019 concerned continued requests for medical records and authorizations to fully assess Plaintiff’s claim.”

Further, this was not a case where insurer’s claim valuation and the policy limit demand were so far apart that a reasonable insurer would believe litigation could arise, until the August 26, 2019 IME. Magistrate Judge Perkin found it was only at the time the IME concluded in August 2019 that it was “likely that Defendant had determined Plaintiff’s demand for payment in the amount of the policy limit exceeded its expected offer for settlement.” Thus, he held the insurer reasonably anticipated litigation no later than the date the IME concluded, and ordered production of unredacted claim handling entries on the evaluation reports prior to that date.

Internal file notes reflecting communications with counsel protected, but those based on work product are only partially protected

The insurer redacted all information in its internal file notes concerning communications with legal counsel, UIM strategy and evaluation, and claim handling on the basis of “work product, attorney-client, confidential, mental impression, not relevant, and post litigation.” The redactions “appear to be an account of all updates made on the handling of Plaintiff’s claim by the claims adjuster….” Based on the earlier work product analysis, “any entries made prior to August 26, 2019 redacted on the basis of the work-product doctrine are discoverable and must be produced.”

This included the adjuster’s summary of the insured’s statement under oath.

“Any redactions made due to the attorney-client privilege are appropriately redacted, and need not be produced, as they are summaries of communications between the claims adjuster, in-house counsel, and outside counsel.”

Scope of permissible subjects for inquiry at deposition of corporate designee and adjuster

As stated above, plaintiff could not direct questions to either deponent about attorney-client communications.  Plaintiff could ask about underlying facts, even if those facts were also communicated to counsel for counsel’s consideration in evaluating the matter, regarding what facts were considered in not offering policy limits.

As to work product, per the above reasoning, “Plaintiff’s counsel must limit any questions under this matter for examination to the time period before August 26, 2019.”

Date of Decision:  May 27, 2021

Sanchez v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-4016, 2021 WL 2156367 (E.D. Pa. May 27, 2021) (Perkin, M.J.)

NO BAD FAITH WHERE INSURER’S POSITION ON COVERAGE WAS CORRECT, AND OTHER ISSUES WERE BELATEDLY RAISED POST-TRIAL (Third Circuit)

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The Third Circuit’s precedential decision focused primarily on what constitutes a sufficient writing to request lower underinsured motorist limits under 75 Pa. C.S. § 1734. That statute only provides there must be a “request in writing”.  After close analysis, the panel determined that such a request can effectively be made in the insurance application itself, without the need for using a specialized form.

“The statute says little beyond that [there must be a request in writing]. But that silence speaks volumes. As we reiterate today, the statute means what it says: an insured can make that choice ‘in writing’ in any writing as long as the choice is clear.”

In this case, the insured requested lower than the maximum UIM limits in her written insurance application.  After suffering a serious injury, and despite the application asking for lower limits and the policy being issued with those lower limits, the insured demanded the maximum UIM limits allowed by statute.

She argued the application request was not binding because she had not filled out a separate form the insurer itself provided, which was designed for the insured to expressly acknowledge she was accepting these lower limits.  The insurer took the position that even without the insurer filling out the acknowledgment form, the written request in the application was sufficient to set lower limits for UIM coverage, and refused to pay full limits allowed by the statute.

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.  The district court agreed with the insured on the policy limit issued, but dismissed the bad faith claim. The case proceeded to trial and jury awarded $1.75 million, which the trial judge molded to $750,000 to meet the UIM maximum, rather than the lower sum requested in the application.

A summary of the trial court’s decision can be found here.

For the reasons stated above, the Third Circuit reversed and found the lower limit requested in the application controlling. It ordered the trial court to mold the verdict to $300,000.

The Third Circuit did affirm the trial court’s dismissal of the insured’s bad faith claim.  The insured tried to attack the bad faith claim’s dismissal, post-verdict, via a motion for reconsideration.

  1. First, the appellate panel agreed with the trial court that the jury verdict was irrelevant to bad faith, and that the trial court should solely look “at the actions and omissions of [the insurer] to evaluate [the insured’s] claim when it was submitted and then processed. [Note:  We recently posted on a New Jersey federal decision similarly rejecting this type of “hindsight” bad faith analysis.]

  2. As the arguments were presented by motion for reconsideration, there had to be some new facts that did not exist or could not have been discovered at the time of the original decision. The Third Circuit agreed with the district court that the insured’s efforts in this regard failed, as the facts she wanted to adduce were not new.

  3. The insured failed to request certain documents in discovery, e.g., the insurer’s Best Practices Manual, and gave no justification. Further, the Rule 26(f) report revealed early on the insurer’s position about the lower limit in the application controlling the UIM policy limits.  Thus, there was no basis for reconsideration involving discovery activities.

  4. In bringing and pursuing her case, the insured did not argue the insurer acted in bad faith on the basis of misrepresenting the scope of coverage, even though she had information allegedly supporting such a claim before trial. Rather, she “chose instead to base [the] bad faith claim on an alleged failure … to investigate the [insured’s] claim.” The court would not allow the insured belatedly to bring up the misrepresentation based claim, finding there should be no second bite at the apple.

  5. The Third Circuit observed that an insurer can defeat a bad faith claim if there “is evidence of a reasonable basis for the insurer’s actions or inaction.” In this case, the insurer believed the application constituted a sufficient writing under section 1734 to reduce UIM coverage limits. The Third Circuit found the insurer’s belief, “not only reasonable but correct.” Thus, its “reliance on the lower UM/UIM coverage limits in informing its investigation and settlement offers was therefore not deceptive.”

Date of Decision:  April 8, 2021

Gibson v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 20-1589, 2021 WL 1310777 (3d Cir. Apr. 8, 2021) (Hardiman, Pratter, Roth, JJ.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM BARELY STATED BASED ON ALLEGED FAILURES TO INVESTIGATE, DELAY, AND LOW VALUATION, TAKEN IN THEIR TOTALITY (Middle District)

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This is a breach of contract and bad faith first party property damage claim.  The court denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss the bad faith claim.

The insured suffered a furnace malfunction that she claimed led to $35,000-$40,000 in damages. She later suffered a second malfunction leading to a roughly equal amount of additional damages.

The insurer valued the first claim at $15,000, paid that sum less the deductible, and refused to pay any sum for the second claim.  This full denial was based on the insured’s alleged failure to clean after the first incident, and that the only odor in the house was from cigarettes, not soot from the furnace discharge.

Middle District Judge Mariani found that while the complaint included some conclusory allegations, and the facts alleged on bad faith were “sparse”, the complaint’s allegations were “enough to barely ‘nudge[ ] [the] claim[ ] across the line from conceivable to plausible….’”

Delay related bad faith

The relevant facts pleaded were that the insurer waited one month until after the first loss to send out an adjuster to investigate.  Further, the insurer did not pay anything for the first loss for seven months. The court observed that “’bad faith may be premised on an insurer’s bad faith in investigating a claim, such as by failing to conduct a good faith investigation into the facts or failing to communicate with the claimant.’”  Further, “[a]lthough delay ‘on its own [does not] necessarily constitute bad faith’, the delay between a demand for benefits and an insurer’s determination of whether to pay a claim is a relevant factor in determining whether an insurer has acted in bad faith.”

Applying these principles to the factual allegations, Judge Mariani found enough delay pleaded in both sending out an investigator, and in paying on the first claim, to survive dismissal.

Valuation related bad faith

The court next addressed whether the valuation differences could amount to bad faith.  As stated, the insured provided estimates ranging from $35,000 to $40,000 and the carrier’s expert valuation was $15,000.  After taking out the deductible, the payment was $10,400.

Judge Mariani observed that “[a]lthough bad faith ‘is not present merely because an insurer makes a low but reasonable estimate of an insured’s damages,’ the disparity between the defendant insurer’s payment and the plaintiff’s estimates is a relevant consideration in bad faith claims.” He relied on Middle District Judge Mannion’s Meiser v. State Farm opinion for the proposition that an “extreme disparity” in the parties’ damage estimates can lend support to a bad faith claim, especially where exhibits are attached showing the extent of the damages. A link to our Meiser summary can be found here.

Judge Mariani found the $25,000 disparity, accompanied by exhibits explaining the damages, to be sufficient to support a bad faith claim. The opinion’s language indicates that the valuation allegations were read along with the delay allegations in evaluating the bad faith claim, and that it was the totality of these three factors (delayed investigation, delayed payment, and valuation disparity) that together made out a plausible bad faith claim.

[For a few examples of valuation disputes insufficient to state a bad faith claim, see this post.]

Failure to investigate related bad faith

As to totally denying the second claim, the complaint alleged denial was based on the insured’s alleged failure to clean the premises after the first loss. However, the insured allegedly informed the carrier that she and her daughter made a significant cleanup effort after the first malfunction and before the second, and the insurer knew this before denying the claim.  Thus, plaintiff alleged the carrier ignored the fact that she did clean, and then ignored her damage estimate transmitted to the carrier because of this putative failure to clean. The insured also alleged the carrier did not pay heed to her public adjuster “pointing out that the home was a forced, hot air system and that [the insurer] had agreed to clean the ducts on the second floor, but not the rooms that were contaminated with the soot/smoke….”

Judge Mariani found the totality of these factual allegations, taken in the light most favorable to plaintiff,  made out a bad faith claim for failure to conduct an adequate investigation, which in turn resulted in an unfounded claim denial. He added that, “[a]lthough discovery in this case may later reveal that Defendant did in fact have a reasonable basis to deny Plaintiff’s second claim, the Complaint states the minimum amount of facts necessary to allow Plaintiff’s bad faith claim to survive the motion to dismiss.”

After surveying the totality of the facts on both claims, Judge Mariani summarized as follows: “Though none of these factual allegations alone may be sufficient to state a claim under § 8371, taken together, Plaintiff has successfully, though barely, stated a plausible claim of bad faith.”

Date of Decision:  March 19, 2021

Chuplis v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:20-CV-1757, 2021 WL 1080932 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 19, 2021) (Mariani, J.)

COURT PERMITS DISCOVERY OF DOCUMENTS AND EMAILS THAT WERE NOT ACTUALLY PRIVILEGED SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY MENTION LEGAL COUNSEL; LIMITS CLAIMS REP DISCOVERY TO MENTAL IMPRESSIONS NOT PREPARED IN ANTICIPATION OF LITIGATION; AND ALLOWS DISCOVERY OF RESERVES IN VALUATION BAD FAITH CASE (Middle District)

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This Pennsylvania federal opinion addresses bad faith discovery disputes.  The case involved first party fire damage losses. Plaintiffs sought various claims file documents, and the insurer produced a privilege log in connection with its objections and redactions. Magistrate Judge Saporito reviewed the documents in camera before ruling.

He identified four areas at issue: “(1) communications regarding expenses incurred and paid by the defendant; (2) communications with counsel; (3) mental impressions; and (4) other financial information.”

  1. Approvals of Legal Fees and Expenses Discoverable

“In general, the mere facts of legal consultation or employment, client identities, attorney’s fees and the scope and nature of employment are not privileged.” Further, “[a]ttorney billing records may be privileged if they reveal the nature of the services rendered.”

Here, documents reflecting only that legal fees and expenses were approved, without any reference to attorney-client communications or the nature of the work performed, are not privileged. Rather, they are administrative in nature, whether involving pre or post-litigation approvals.

  1. Emails strings at issue were not privileged

Under Pennsylvania law, a party seeking the protection of the attorney-client privilege must show there was “’(1) a communication (2) made between privileged persons (3) in confidence (4) for the purpose of obtaining or providing legal assistance for the client.’”

Here, the court had to review a number of email strings.  Judge Saporito observed that “’each version of an email string (i.e. a forward or reply of a previous email message) must be considered as a separate, unique document.’” Further, in preparing a privilege log, “’each message of the string which is privileged must be separately logged in order to claim privilege in that particular document.’” In practice, this “’simply requires that Defendants ensure that each withheld email within a string be logged in some fashion at least once.’”

The emails at issue all referenced legal counsel in some way, but were not themselves communications with counsel. Nor did they disclosure any attorney-client communications.  Thus, the attorney-client privilege did not apply.

  1. Claims representatives’ mental impressions prepared in anticipation of litigation were protected as work-product

“Mental impressions and opinions of a party and its agents are not generally protected by the work product doctrine unless they are prepared in anticipation of litigation.” “To that end, ‘work product prepared in the ordinary course of business is not immune from discovery.’”

Here, the insurer redacted documents in the claims file that included its claims representatives’ impressions, conclusions, and opinions. Judge Saporito had to make the fact-specific inquiry into when these representatives anticipated litigation.  He recognized that prudence requires parties to anticipate litigation, and to start preparing themselves for litigation at some time before the litigation is actually instituted.

Judge Saporito found a number of redactions warranted because the claims representatives anticipated litigation.  On the other hand, he ordered other redactions eliminated, and documents produced, where: (1) there wasn’t actually any work product, (2) the materials only involved an analysis of general business practices concerning “the investigation and evaluation of future, notional property claims involving suspicious circumstances,” and (3) the representative’s notations were made on an insurance application, which was clearly not done at a time when litigation would be anticipated.

  1. Reserves discoverable in bad faith action over valuation

Judge Saporito observed that courts in the Third Circuit are split over whether reserves are discoverable in bad faith cases. He followed Middle District Magistrate Judge Carlson’s Barnard decision, summarized here, for the proposition that the prevailing position favors discoverability if the bad faith claim at issue “relates to an insurer’s failure to settle or where there is a discrepancy regarding the value of the claim.” By contrast, if the bad faith claim does not involve valuation or liability estimates, reserve information is irrelevant.

The present case involved a valuation dispute, and Judge Saporito ordered production of reserve information.

Finally, Judge Saporito ordered production of certain information concerning the agent who sold plaintiffs the policy at issue.  He qualified this order by stating he was not ruling on whether this information could ultimately be admissible at trial.

Date of Decision:  March 5, 2021

Mazer v. Frederick Mutual Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 1:19-CV-01838, 2021 WL 850984 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 5, 2021) (Saporito, M.J.)

DEFENSE VERDICT FOR INSURER AFFIRMED; NO BAD FAITH BASED ON ALLEGED LOW-BALL OFFERS OR CLAIM HANDLING (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (Non-precedential)

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This fact-driver UIM bad faith case resulted in a non-jury verdict for the insurer.  Pennsylvania’s Superior Court affirmed.

[This is the second non-precedential Superior Court opinion reviewing bad faith verdicts that we’ve summarized in last three weeks, demonstrating the increasing role these non-precedential appellate decisions may come to play in briefing bad faith issues.  Per Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 126(b), such decisions issued after May 19, 2019 can be cited for their persuasive authority.  This decision is also noteworthy in reiterating that it is not the court’s job on appeal to flesh out arguments or find support in the record that is not adduced by a party in its briefing.]

Factual and procedural background

Plaintiff was injured as a bus passenger, when another vehicle hit the bus.  The plaintiff’s symptoms and treatment concluded six months after the collision.

The tortfeasor only had $15,000 in coverage, and plaintiff sought UIM benefits under his brother’s policy. Plaintiff did not seek this UIM coverage, however, until 19 months after the collision.

The brother’s carrier began its investigation the same month the claim was reported. Both brothers were interviewed and provided evidence that would lead to there being no coverage, but plaintiff provided other evidence favoring coverage. After two months, the insurer completed its investigation, and concluded it would provide UIM coverage.

Shortly after, the insured provided a document package. The carrier evaluated the information and soon offered $5,000, additionally telling plaintiff’s counsel the insurer needed proof that plaintiff’s work loss was due to the collision and not any other causes. Instead of replying, 17 days later plaintiff filed his bad faith suit.

The complaint alleged bad faith based only on “low ball offers and the investigation as being excessively long….” No loss of consortium claim was ever pleaded, though it was mentioned in some correspondence between counsel.

The arbitration award and the arbitrator’s doubts

The underlying claim went to binding arbitration, while the bad faith claim was pursued in court.  Before the arbitration hearing, the insurer offered $12,500, and then $30,000, to settle. Plaintiff never lowered his demand below the $100,000 policy limit.  The arbitrator’s award “was not far above the final offer of $30,000.00.”

Although the arbitrator awarded money damages, he expressed doubts about plaintiff’s case.  He observed the contradiction between plaintiff’s telling medical personnel in October 2013 that his medical issues had resolved, while later claiming they did not resolve but continued to get worse.  The arbitrator also expressed concern over apparent conflicts between the plaintiff’s claim he could not, and did not, work, compared to the actual work and medical history. Among other things, the arbitrator recited details as to the funds plaintiff alleged he and his wife lived on for years, and how it appeared highly unlikely they could actually have survived on this amount without plaintiff himself having also worked (despite his assertions that he could not work).

In later reviewing the arbitration award for loss of consortium, the court expressed concerned that while the arbitrator observed the complaint failed to actually include any claim for loss of consortium, he still awarded $15,000 in loss of consortium damages. The arbitrator did so because the wife’s name was in the caption and the policy provided for loss of consortium damages.

The Superior Court was also concerned that the arbitrator never explained the basis for its other damage awards. “While the arbitrator awarded [plaintiff] $21,905.00 for lost wages and $35,000 for pain and suffering, this Court is again unable to determine the bases for these figures.”

The trial court’s verdict and reasoning, and Superior Court’s affirmance

The trial court ruled against plaintiffs on the merits.  First, the passenger’s wife claimed bad faith for the carrier failing to pay on the loss of consortium claim. But the trial court only learned of this loss of consortium claim the day of trial, and it refused to consider that belated claim. The Superior Court ultimately found this issue waived on appeal.

As to the bad faith claims for delays in the investigation and low ball offers, the trial court observed that plaintiff and his wife did not even appear at trial to support their claims. Rather they relied on witnesses associated with the insured to focus on the allegedly improper claims handling, and apparently an expert witness (whose testimony or report was not persuasive to the trial court judge). The trial court found plaintiff failed to meet his burden by putting on clear and convincing evidence of bad faith.

The Superior Court affirmed.

The “low ball” offer claim fails

In addressing the “low ball offer” bad faith claim, the court contrasted the instant facts with those in the seminal Boneberger case.  In Boneberger, the trial court found the insurer’s witnesses lacked credibility, did not conduct at IME when challenging medical records, actively promoted unethical claim handling practices, and that the insureds only brought suit after long negotiations and an arbitration award. In the present case, there were no similar credibility rulings against the insurer, there was an IME, and there was no finding the carrier promoted an unethical philosophy. Further, instead of allowing the investigation to develop, the bad faith suit was filed in short order, without any prolonged negotiations and before the arbitration award.

The Superior Court also rejected the argument that the arbitration award was evidence of bad faith “low ball” offers. As the court observed, the arbitrator did not find plaintiff and his wife credible, found their medical and wage evidence unreliable, and failed to explain sufficiently the basis for his damage awards. “The fact that the arbitrator awarded damages which were less than those sought … but more than what [was] offered does not support a finding that [the insurer] acted in bad faith.”

The claim handling argument fails

The court then rejected the argument for bad faith in evaluating the information plaintiff provided to the insurer. In rejecting this argument, the court not only found it “scattershot, unsupported by legal authority and undeveloped[,]” but made clear what courts will not do in reviewing cases on appeal.

The Superior Court will not play the role of advocate

  1. “Arguments not appropriately developed include those where the party has failed to cite any authority in support of a contention. This Court will not act as counsel and will not develop arguments on behalf of an appellant. Moreover, we observe that the Commonwealth Court, our sister appellate court, has aptly noted that [m]ere issue spotting without analysis or legal citation to support an assertion precludes our appellate review of [a] matter.”

  2. “While the [insureds] complain that [the insurer] failed to properly evaluate certain medical and wage evidence they provided, they do not specify the evidence, explain its relevance, or state where it is in the record. … The certified record, including transcripts, is nearly 6000 pages. While we have undertaken careful review, it is not our responsibility to comb through the record seeking the factual underpinnings of a claim. Commonwealth v. Mulholland, 702 A.2d 1027, 1034 n.5 (Pa. Super. 1997) (‘In a record containing thousands of pages, this court will not search every page to substantiate a party’s incomplete argument’).”

Superior Court would not reverse trial court credibility determination on expert

The Superior Court also ruled plaintiff had waived the argument that the trial court failed to properly consider expert testimony, while still observing that the “trial court, as the finder of fact, is free to believe all, part or none of the evidence presented. Issues of credibility and conflicts in evidence are for the trial court to resolve; this Court is not permitted to reexamine the weight and credibility determination or substitute our judgment for that of the fact finder.”

Date of Decision:  February 26, 2021

Gavasto v. 21st Century Indem. Ins. Co., Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 1625 WDA 2019, 2021 WL 754026 (Pa. Super. Ct. Feb. 26, 2021) (McCaffery, Murray, Olson, JJ.)

SUPERIOR COURT AFFIRMS TRIAL COURT’S BAD FAITH VERDICT, AND ITS REFUSAL TO AWARD PUNITIVE DAMAGES (Superior Court of Pennsylvania) (Non-precedential)

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After a non-jury trial, the Blair County Court of Common Pleas found the insurer violated the bad faith statute, and awarded statutory damages in the form of attorneys’ fees and super-interest. It declined, however, to award punitive damages under the statute.  The insurer appealed the bad faith verdict, and the insured appealed the decision not to award punitive damages.  The Superior Court rejected both appeals and affirmed the lower court.

Facts

This is another UIM bad faith case.

The accident occurred in 2000, and the driver’s carrier agreed with the insured that the other driver was 100% liable, and paid its full $100,000 UIM limits to the insured.  The tortfeasor’s carrier paid $50,000.

Over two years later, the insured sought UIM coverage from her mother’s carrier, the defendant insurer in this action. The defendant was affiliated with the driver’s own insurer, and had access to its investigation files.  Its UIM limit was $600,000. It valued the claim at $200,000 and offered $50,000 to settle the claim ($150,000 already having been paid by the tortfeasor’s carrier and the first UIM insurer).

The insured rejected the offer, and initiated a bad faith action in 2003, which it held in abeyance while the UIM case was pending. The insurer paid the undisputed $50,000.

Later in 2003, the insured received a PTSD diagnosis and send additional medical records to the insurer.  The insurer received the medical records, but denied having received them. The defendant insurer took the position that the diagnosis was unrelated to the 2000 accident, and its $200,000 remain unchanged, having failed to receive any medical records (which it in fact had received, however). It then initiated the UIM arbitration process in 2004.

The defendant carrier informed its arbitration defense counsel the other driver was 100% at fault.  Months later the carrier’s counsel said he had spoken to the other driver, based on that interview the accident could have been the insured’s fault, and the arbitrator might rule for the carrier on the UIM claim.  The attorney’s opinion was based solely on the other driver’s rendition of the facts, and not any expert report or investigation other than interviewing the other driver.  The carrier itself did not obtain a reconstruction expert report on the accident.

The carrier, however, was sufficiently persuaded. It took the position in late 2004 that the insured might have comparative negligence up to 50%, but not more. By early 2005, however, the carrier took the position that the accident was 100% the insured’s fault.

The carrier delayed the arbitration by filing a declaratory judgment action seeking to limit the range of damages the arbitrator could award. This case was dismissed on preliminary objections. The carrier further delayed the arbitration by seeking evidence of the insured’s post-accident motor vehicle record, fall-downs, alcoholism and depression.

Eight years later, in 2013, the case finally went to arbitration, i.e., over 13 years after the accident and 8-9 years after the UIM arbitration process began. The arbitrator valued the insured’s injuries at $599,000, and awarded her $399,000. The arbitrator found no comparative negligence. [This was the same position the carrier had taken before late 2004.]

Arguments at trial

The bad faith case went to a non-jury trial in 2018, with a claim handler and the insurer’s UIM arbitration counsel as the sole witnesses.

The insured argued the carrier acted in bad faith when changing its position on the drivers’ comparative negligence, based solely on defense counsel’s interview of the other driver. The insured asserted that the carrier should have known the other driver was not credible, and should not have relied on his rendition of the facts to change its position because the other driver contradicted his own earlier statements to the investigators as to the accident’s cause. In response, the carrier appears to have asserted an advice of counsel defense.

The insured also argued bad faith in the carrier’s blanket refusal to consider subsequent psychological treatments, failure to conduct a full investigation by interviewing the investigating police officer before the UIM arbitration, failing to hire an accident reconstruction expert, and prolonging the proceedings for years in order to selectively reevaluate the claim after it learned the insured had various substance abuse issues, and a history of fall-downs, after the date of the underlying accident.

The trial court’s verdict

The trial court “found [the insurer] had acted recklessly and without a reasonable basis in continually valuing [the] claim at $200,000.” Further, the insurer “had improperly failed to reevaluate the claim to consider [the insured’s] psychological damages.” It was significant to the court that the insurer refused to consider the psychological claims based on the insured’s failure to transmit PTSD related documents, but “admitted at trial that it had received the medical records.”

The court also ruled against the carrier based on its changing positions as to the insured’s responsibility, rejecting the advice of counsel defense because the other driver’s 2004 rendition of the facts to defense counsel should not have been deemed credible based on that driver’s initial statements after the accident.

For nearly four years, after its own investigation and earlier interviewing the other driver, the insurer took the position that the insured bore no responsibility for the accident. The defendant insurer only began altering its liability position after defense counsel interviewed the underlying tortfeasor, who had changed his story.  Then, over a period of months, the insurer went from no comparative negligence, to maybe 50% comparative negligence at most, to a 100% negligence on the insured, solely based on the other driver’s interview with defense counsel.

The trial court observed the arbitrator ruled the other driver was not credible. Further, “[t]he trial court stated that although the arbitrator’s decision did not bind it, it recognized that the arbitrator was a ‘neutral, detached fact-finder’ and had not found [the insured] comparatively negligent at all.” The arbitrator also found substantial injuries. Thus, the “change of position on liability ‘represents a significant failure by [the insurer] in their ongoing responsibility to investigate and reconsider [its] position during [its] entire management of the claim.’”

The trial court further found the refusal to go above its $200,000 valuation for over a decade “was done with a purpose motivated by self-interest.” For example, the carrier failed to consider the psychological medical records admittedly in its possession.  It also failed to carry out a proper investigation and follow-up by not contacting the investigating police officer until the arbitration hearing, or hiring a reconstruction expert. Finally, the trial court found the carrier prolonged the proceedings in filing the declaratory judgment action based on the insured’s substance abuse and fall-downs after the 2000 accident.

Damages

The trial court awarded $24,650 in attorneys’ fees for the bad faith litigation, $125,000 in attorneys’ fees in connection with the UIM claim, and $125,000 in interest. It refused to award punitive damages.

Bad faith legal standards where insurer delays in paying benefits due

The Superior Court observed the following legal principles in rendering its verdict:

  1. “Ultimately, ‘[w]hen an insured obtains a bad faith verdict in a bench trial, appellate courts should only reverse in the most egregious of cases when the trial court has committed reversible error.’”

  2. “’The analysis of an insurance bad faith claim ‘is dependent on the conduct of the insurer, not its insured.’”

  3. Because ‘bad faith’ in this context stems from the duty of good faith and fair dealing implied in every insurance contract, the plaintiff need not prove the insurer acted with self-interest or ill-will.”

  4. “In order to prevail under the bad faith statute, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8371, ‘the plaintiff must present clear and convincing evidence (1) that the insurer did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy and (2) that the insurer knew of or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis.’”

  5. “An action for bad faith is not restricted to the outright denial of a claim, but rather encompasses ‘all instances of bad faith conduct by an insurer.’”

[Note: The Court cited the Superior Court’s decision Rancosky v. Washington National Insurance Co., and not the Supreme Court’s Rancosky decision, to support this point.  As discussed many times on this Blog, there is a real issue as to whether section 8371 encompasses claims that do not involve the denial of a benefit actually due, i.e., is there any cognizable statutory bad faith cause of action when the insurer does not actually owe the insured any duty to pay first party benefits, or to defend or indemnify third party claims.  See, e.g., this post.]

  1. The Superior court then added examples of bad faith, where a claim was not outright denied: “This includes a lack of good faith investigation, as well as ‘evasion of the spirit of the bargain, lack of diligence and slacking off, willful rendering of imperfect performance, abuse of a power to specify terms, and interference with or failure to cooperate in the other party’s performance.’”

[Note: In this case, there is no dispute that some benefit was due from the insurer, just a dispute of how much was due and when.  In effect, the insured is arguing that there was a decade plus delay in paying a benefit actually due; and the court’s bad faith verdict is made in light of the insurer actually owing a benefit substantially greater than what the insurer offered to pay.]

  1. “An insurer must make a timely investigation in response to the claim, and not just for arbitration.”

  2. “Indeed, an insurer must reevaluate a claim when presented with new information.”

  3. “An insurer’s mere negligence does not constitute bad faith, and an insurer may make a low estimate of an insured’s claim, so long as it has a reasonable basis.”

  4. “[A]n insurer has committed bad faith where it ‘acted in a dilatory manner, and forced the insured into arbitration by presenting an arbitrary ‘low-ball’ offer which bore no reasonable relationship to the insured’s reasonable medical expenses,’ particularly where the ‘low-ball’ offer proved to be significantly lower than the arbitration award.”

Facts supporting the bad faith verdict

The Superior Court held the following facts supported the trial court’s finding of bad faith:

The insurer never changed its claim valuation over a ten year period from the claim’s submission through a UIM arbitration, “despite mounting evidence that [the insured’s] damages surpassed [that] $200,000 [valuation].” The trial court properly rejected the insurer’s argument that there was no valuation change over time because the insurer went from taking the position that the insured had no responsibility for her own injury, to being partially responsible, and finally to being deemed wholly at fault for her own injury.  The Superior Court agreed that the evidence did not show the valuation claim ever hinged on the insured’s alleged comparative negligence.

Rather, the record demonstrated that as the insurer’s “position on liability evolved, its valuation of the claim did not change. Rather, it put a $200,000 value on [the] claim from the outset, failed to consider evidence of her psychological damages, refused to modify the valuation, and now cites subsequent developments to justify its failure to adjust the valuation in light of the information it disregarded. That it may not have failed to consider the evidence and adjust the valuation purposefully or because of ill will does not undermine the trial court’s conclusion, as [the insured] did not need to prove such states of mind.”

Other factors collectively favoring bad faith were the insurer did not change its comparative liability position until preparing for the UIM arbitration; the insurer did not interview the police officer on the scene; and that the insurer “was unable hire a reconstruction expert for arbitration because too much time had passed is further indicative that it did not make adequate inquiry into the accident in a timely manner.”

The facts did not require the trial court to award punitive damages

The Superior Court ruled: “Although the [trial] court found [the insurer] acted in bad faith, and awarded attorneys’ fees and interest accordingly, we cannot say that it abused its discretion in not awarding punitive damages. The evidence was not such that we conclude that the court’s decision was manifestly unreasonable or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill will.”

The Superior Court made the point that section 8371 does not compel the Courts of Common Pleas to award punitive damages simply because there is a bad faith verdict.  Rather, punitive damages remain within the trial judge’s discretion.  Ill-will, reckless indifference, or some other sign of malign action might provide evidence in proving statutory bad faith, but this level of intent is not a required element of a statutory bad faith claim.
Thus, just an insured can make out a bad faith claim without having to prove the level of evil intent or outrageous conduct that forms the basis for punitive damages, a finding of bad faith does not automatically encompass conduct that would mandate a finding of punitive damages.   Here, the trial judge did not find the carrier’s intent was so outrageous that punitive damages were warranted, even though the court found the carrier knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that it was unreasonably denying the insured benefits due her.

No error in limiting discovery of “post-denial” conduct

Finally, the insurer appealed the trial court’s granting a protective order as to certain requests for admissions concerning “post-denial” conduct, covering a time period beginning with the April 2004 initiation of the UIM arbitration process.  The trial court found this conduct irrelevant to the insurer’s bad faith in denying the claim. The Superior Court affirmed, finding no abuse of discretion.

The insurer had the burden to show how it was prejudiced by the trial court’s excluding this evidence, but it never “specified what evidence it sought under the admissions requests that it did not receive, and how that alleged evidence would have affected its case.”

Date of Decision:  February 4, 2021

Sartain v. USAA, Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 4 WDA 2020, 2021 WL 401954 (Pa. Super. Ct. Feb. 4, 2021) (Bender, McLaughlin, Musmanno, JJ.) (Non-precedential)

INSURER NOT REQUIRED TO PRODUCE PERSONNEL FILE, BUT IS REQUIRED TO (1) PROVIDE CORPORATE DESIGNEE FOR DEPOSITION, (2) PRODUCE MANUALS AND TRAINING MATERIALS WITHIN CERTAIN TIME/GEOGRAPHIC LIMITS, AND (3) PROVIDE CLAIMS FILES TO THE COURT FOR IN CAMERA REVIEW ON PRIVILEGE AND WORK PRODUCT (Philadelphia Federal)

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The instant dispute involves the depositions of the claims handler and a corporate designee, as well as the scope of document discovery. The insurer made extensive objections to document requests accompanying the notices of deposition, and the any deposition of a corporate designee.  These are described in detail below.

This UIM bad faith case survived an earlier motion to dismiss, and was now proceeding on the merits before Magistrate Judge Perkin.  (Judge Leeson’s 2020 decision allowing the case to proceed is summarized here.)

General Discovery Principles

Magistrate Judge Perkin set out the basic principles guiding his decision:

  1. Rule 26 allows parties to “obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case[.]”

  2. “Relevance is a broad concept that encompass[es] any matter that bears on, or that reasonably could lead to other matter that could bear on, any issue that is or may be in the case.”

  3. “As an initial matter, therefore, all relevant material is discoverable unless an applicable evidentiary privilege is asserted. The presumption that such matter is discoverable, however, is defeasible.”

  4. “While the discovery rules are meant to be construed liberally, the responses sought [by a party] must comport with the traditional notions of relevancy and must not impose an undue burden on the responding party.”

  5. “To determine the scope of discoverable information under Rule 26(b)(1), the Court looks initially to the pleadings.”

  6. “In deciding which materials are discoverable and which are not, a district court must further distinguish between requests that ‘appear[ ] reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence’ … and demands that are ‘overly broad and unduly burdensome.’”

Documents Requested in Connection with the Claim Handler’s Deposition

The insured did not object to the claim handler’s deposition, but did make multiple objections to the document requests accompanying the notice of deposition.

Manuals and Training Documents Subject to Limited Discovery

Plaintiff’s first request was for “[a]ny and all documents, policies, procedures, rules, regulations, manuals, training documents, or other documents or things relevant to the handling and/or evaluation of Underinsured Motorists claims during the period of 2015-2020.”

Plaintiff’s second request was for “[a] true and correct copy of the complete “Claims Manual/Claims Office Manual” or other such similar document(s) by whatever name or title used by Defendants for the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

Plaintiff’s third request was for “[a] true and correct copy of the complete “Training Manual” or other such similar document(s) by whatever name or title used by Defendant for the purpose of training its employees in the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits claims for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

Plaintiff’s fourth request was for “[t]rue and correct copies of any and all claims bulletins, internal memoranda, letters, notices, or similar documents sent by management to the claims staff relating to the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits claims for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

The court found the first request relevant to both the breach of contract and bad faith claims, specifically ruling that manuals and other training materials are relevant to bad faith claims “where they contain instructions concerning procedures used by employees in processing claims.” Magistrate Judge Perkin added that “[t]raining materials ‘relevant to processing the claim in question’ are discoverable, as they may show, inter alia, ‘that agents of an insurance company recklessly disregarded standard interpretations of a particular contractual provision in denying coverage or deliberatively omitted certain investigatory steps.’”

However, Magistrate Judge Perkin agreed with the insurer that plaintiff’s requests were “overly broad in time, and should be limited to the period from when Defendant was first on notice of a UIM claim through the present.” First notice was when the insurer received correspondence from Plaintiff’s counsel informing Defendant of an anticipated underinsured motorist claim.

Magistrate Judge Perkin limited the geographic scope as well, “to those documents and materials governing underinsured motorist claims in Pennsylvania,” where the underlying accident occurred, where plaintiff resided, and the policy provided for UIM benefits under Pennsylvania law.

Magistrate Judge Perkin rejected the argument that the materials were trade secrets or proprietary in nature, pointing out there was no showing made to this effect but only “bare allegations that the information requested falls under this definition” which were insufficient “to protect such information from discovery.”

The court used the same analysis to address document requests 2-4.

Court Permits Discovery, with Limitations, of Claim Handling and Investigation Files

Plaintiff requested “[t]rue and correct copies of any and all letters, correspondence, documents, reports, or other records which relate to review, evaluation, and/or assessment of the causation or lack thereof of Plaintiff’s injuries following the underlying motor vehicle accident which was relied upon in the handling, assessment, investigation, and/or evaluation of Plaintiff’s UIM claim.”

Plaintiff also requested “[a]ny and all claims, notes, correspondence, records, recordings, documents, letters, phone logs, emails, or other communication writings or things pertaining to [the claim] from October 12, 2016 through present.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin observed that “an insurer, is not permitted to shield the discovery of its entire claims handling and investigation under the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine by hiring an attorney to perform its services. As Plaintiff noted in her brief, a bad faith claim may include “evidence of the insurer’s bad faith that occurred after the filing of the complaint.” The court reviewed the insurer’s privilege log and redacted documents, but could not determine whether the attorney-client privilege or work product doctrine actually applied. Thus, Magistrate Judge Perkin ordered the insurer to make the full documents available for in camera review, including “internal file notes regarding communications with legal counsel … ; UIM strategy and evaluation; claim handling[;] Amount of reserves and legal expenses on the UIM and Medical Payment claims[;] … Evaluation Report for Plaintiff’s UIM claim [;] … internal emails regarding receipt of this lawsuit, and assignment to legal counsel … [;] ISO Claim Search report[; and] Asset report regarding [the tortfeasor driver], for consent to settle/waiver of UIM subrogation purposes[.]”

The second request quoted above was also subject to in camera review for the same reasons. The court added that “[t]o the extent that Defendant maintains any of the requested material outside of the web-based system, it shall produce such information immediately to Plaintiff unless it is appropriately protected by a privilege.”

These were limited to the time period from the date the insurer first had notice, as described above.

The insurer also requested “[a]ny and all claim files concerning Plaintiff’s claim for underinsured motorist benefits, in paper, electronic, and/or other available format.” Magistrate Judge Perkin ruled that “[a]s with the previous two requests, this Court will conduct an in camera review to determine if Defendant properly withheld documents related to this request. Defendant is not required to perform forensic investigation into its computing devices or systems to locate information existing prior to when Defendant’s duty to preserve evidence arose which is no longer accessible. Similarly, Defendant does not need to produce the same ESI in more than one form. Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(b)(2)(E)(iii). If Defendant maintains any information responsive to the above request in non-electronic forms, it shall produce such information immediately to Plaintiff unless it duplicative of what has already been produced or properly protected by a privilege.” [Emphasis in original]

Insurer not Compelled to Produce Personnel Files

The insured requested “[p]ersonnel file, including applications for employment, evaluations, awards, commendations, complaints, reprimands, resumes, attendance records for the period of 2016-2018, tests, performance appraisals, documents reflecting job performance and/or employee conduct, letters of commendation, reprimands, letters of termination, personnel action notices, investigative files and reports concerning or substantially concerning [the specific] Claims Specialist, only.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin ruled “[t]he request for personnel information implicates the strong public policy against disclosure of such materials.” Thus, “[w]hile information relating to [the claim handler’s] employment and job performance may be relevant to Plaintiff’s bad faith claim, Plaintiff may learn this information through less invasive means, such as by deposition or interrogatory. … Accordingly, while Plaintiff may obtain the employment information it seeks by deposing [the claim handler], or through interrogatories, Defendant is not compelled to produce the materials relating to the above request.”

Deposition of Corporate Designee Permitted

The court observed that corporate designees are called to testify about their personal knowledge only, but also to speak for the corporation “about matters to which the corporation has reasonable access.” In this case, the insured’s bad faith claim included allegations beyond valuation, “but also claims that defendant mishandled, failed to properly investigate and evaluate the claim and otherwise acted in bad faith.” Plaintiff wanted the 30(b)(6) designee “to represent the collective knowledge of the corporation and to present its positions on certain topics [,] including … “the manner and method of how Defendant instructs, advises, directs, and incentivizes its employees to handle claims is directly related to what, if anything, the adjuster(s) did in handling this claim and why.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin refused to quash the corporate designee’s deposition, finding the insured was “entitled to depose the corporate representative and obtain an official explanation of the claims-handling policies used by” the insurer.

He did not, however, stop there.  Rather, Magistrate Judge Perkin addressed objections to individual matters designated for examination and individual document requests accompanying the subpoena.

  1. “1st Matter for Examination: The thoughts, analysis, evaluation(s), rationale(s), investigation, actions, research, review, and reasoning of the handling adjuster’s supervisor at Defendant insurance company who personally participated in the decision to offer $6,000 on or about October 25, 2019, to resolve Plaintiff’s claim. (The term “participated” as used in this paragraph includes, without limitation, reviewed any documents, analyzed and/or discussed the matter with anyone, approved the offer of compromise or provided any information or input whatsoever into the decision).”

Magistrate Judge Perkin reserved ruling on this area of examination until after he had conducted the in camera review described above.

  1. “2nd Matter for Examination: The existence and content of any writings, files, procedures, claims-handling procedures, guidelines, claims manuals, or documents of any kind including any material contained in any computer which existed at any time from 2015 to the present, applicable to the handling and adjustment of Plaintiff’s claim.”

Magistrate Judge Pekin permitted this area of examination, to allow for questioning on “[t]he existence and content of any writings, files, procedures, claims-handling procedures, guidelines, claims manuals, or documents of any kind which existed from March 16, 2017 through 2020, applicable to the handling and adjustment of Plaintiff’s claim.”

  1. “3rd Matter for Examination: Defendant’s claims handling manuals, guidelines, or any other documents used to instruct personnel on the claims handling and/or adjustment practice used by State Farm to instruct/train/educate/direct or otherwise teach its claims adjusters to adjust first-party Underinsured Motorists (“UIM”) claims as of October 1, 2015.”

The court found this area of questioning relevant, within time and geographic limits, stating “[d]efendant’s claims handling manuals, guidelines, or any other documents used to instruct personnel on the claims handling and/or adjustment practice used by [the insurer] to instruct/train/educate/direct or otherwise teach its claims adjusters to adjust first-party Underinsured Motorists (“UIM”) claims in Pennsylvania from March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “4th Matter for Examination: State Farm’s policy, practice and procedure for promotion of claims representatives and/or adjusters within State Farm as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

The court found the insurer’s “policies, practices, and procedures for promotions of claims representatives and adjusters is relevant to its claim of bad faith. To the extent that there are employee incentives to close out insureds’ claims, or handle claims in a particular manner, such information could reveal facts relevant to the motivations of the employees who handled Plaintiff’s claim.” Discovery was thus allowed, within a limited time frame.

  1. “5th Matter for Examination: Defendant’s training materials, practices, and procedures for claims adjusters handling UIM claims as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

The court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Defendant’s training materials, practices, and procedures for claims adjusters handling UIM claims in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “6th Matter for Examination: Defendant’s methods, policies, procedures, and practices used to calculate the value of damages in a UIM claim as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Defendant’s methods, policies, procedures, and practices used to calculate the value of damages in a UIM claim in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “7th Matter for Examination: Any and all materials provided to claims adjusters handling UIM claims for the purpose of training claims adjusters and/or representatives as to calculating, evaluation, assessing, and determining value of damages as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Any and all materials provided to claims adjusters handling UIM claims in Pennsylvania for the purpose of training claims adjusters and/or representatives as to calculating, evaluation, assessing, and determining value of damages as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “8th Matter for Examination: The policies and procedures for evaluating, assessing, and investigating personal injuries to an insured in a UIM claim as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “The policies and procedures for evaluating, assessing, and investigating personal injuries to an insured in a UIM claim in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

The court next addressed the document requests accompanying the corporate designee’s notice of deposition.

  1. “Request 1: Any and all claims manuals, reference materials, training manuals, and/or guidelines for interpretation of the relevant insurance policy.”

Following his analysis in addressing the document requests accompanying the claim handler’s notice of deposition, Magistrate Judge Perkin found the request relevant to the bad faith claim, within the limited time period.  To the extent the response would be identical to the other request, however, he would not require a separate production; rather, the defendant could cross reference that earlier production to bates numbers.

  1. “Request 2: Any and all documents, materials, manuals, guides, claims manuals, handbooks, training materials or other items relating to the topics set forth above.”

Again following the same request to the claim handler, the documents were relevant to the bad faith claim within a limited time period, and the same process of cross-referencing to bates numbers could be followed.

  1. “Request 3: The personnel files of all company employees who worked on Plaintiff’s UIM claim.”

Again following the earlier analysis, the insurer was not required to produce written materials, leaving the insured to pursue that employment information through the deposition or interrogatories.

Date of Decision:  January 22, 2021

SOLANO-SANCHEZ v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTO INSURANCE COMPANY, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-4016, 2021 WL 229400 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 22, 2021) (Perkin, M.J.)

INSURER COMPELLED TO PRODUCE “BEST PRACTICES” GUIDE (Western District)

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In this case, Western District Magistrate Judge Kelly ordered production of the insurer’s claim handling guidelines.

The insurer denied UIM coverage, claiming the insureds waived their benefits. The carrier conceded its UIM waiver forms did not comply with Pennsylvania law, but took the position it still properly denied the claim under the circumstances.  The insureds sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The insured’s document requests sought “all written policies, claims and manuals, company manuals, operational guidelines, and/or any other policies, procedures, guidelines, manuals, and/or instructional/educational material pertaining to the handling of underinsured motorist claims ….” The insurer objected on the basis that these documents were confidential and proprietary, but that “if plaintiffs’ counsel will agree to sign a confidentiality order, [the insurer] will produce a copy of the Table of Contents for its claims manual and the plaintiffs can identify which chapter or chapters they believe they need to review.”

The carrier later stated there were no claim manuals, but rather the insurer maintained a “Best Practices” guide. The insurer produced part of its Best Practices guide, with redactions and removed pages, regarding liability, subrogation, and first party medical benefits. The redactions were not specifically identified and there was no privilege log.

The insured moved to compel greater production.

The carrier responded that “evidence of claims handling is irrelevant to this proceeding because the … claim was ‘never ‘handled’ since [the carrier] concluded there was nothing to handle.” It also took the position that neither liability nor the nature and extent of the injuries were in dispute, and the only issue was whether coverage was properly denied.

Separately, the carrier objected to production because such “production would otherwise cause it harm based on the nature of the plaintiffs’ counsel’s law firm; that is, a well-advertised law firm that represents ‘injured people.’” Apparently, the carrier was concerned that plaintiffs’ counsel would use its manual in future lawsuits, brought by different plaintiffs against the insurer.

In addressing the insureds’ motion to compel, the court first observed that claims manuals and training materials are “relevant [in bad faith cases] because the manuals contain instructions concerning procedures used by insurance company employees in handling UIM claims, like Plaintiffs’ claims herein. Though departures from established standards in handling a UIM claim would not alone establish bad faith, such information ‘is probative evidence for plaintiff to demonstrate bad faith.’”

The court rejected the insurer’s argument that it did not have to produce these materials because there had been no claim handling. “That [the insurer] failed to process the claim at all does not necessarily render guidelines as to how claims are ordinarily processed irrelevant and, at this stage of the proceedings, it cannot be said that the information sought is unrelated to the facts at issue.” The insureds had agreed that discovery could have some limits, and the insurer did not have to produce materials in the Best Practices guide “pertaining to rental vehicles, property damage, vehicle theft, and other sections unrelated to the evaluat[ion] and/or handling of an injury claim….”

Thus, the insureds “met their initial burden to establish the relevance of the requested material within the broad scope of permissible discovery and [the insurer] failed to adequately show that the information, limited to the handling of UIM claims for bodily injury, is irrelevant simply because it denied the claim.”

As to the second objection, the court found nothing in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure imposing a discovery “limitation based on a law firm’s advertising budget or the nature of its legal representation of injured persons….” Any concern that these materials might be used in some future litigation could be addressed with plaintiff’s counsel in negotiating and drafting an appropriate confidentiality agreement.

Thus, the insurer had to produce the Best Practices guide, with only the redactions and limitations described above.

Date of Decision: December 9, 2020

Keeler v. Esurance Insurance Services, Inc., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-271, 2020 WL 7239568 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 9, 2020) (Kelly, M.J.)

INSURER CAN GO BEYOND FOUR CORNERS OF COMPLAINT TO DETERMINE IF A PERSON IS AN INSURED IN THE FIRST INSTANCE, WHEN DEFENDING BAD FAITH CASE (Third Circuit, Pennsylvania Law)

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The Third Circuit addressed the central issue of whether the defendant was an insured, and how to analyze that factual issue in ruling on coverage and bad faith claims.

The named insured went with his girlfriend to a picnic, where they met up with the mother of the named insured’s child.  The girlfriend was also a named insured, but the mother was a stranger to the insurance contract. The mother decided to move the named insureds’ car, and struck plaintiff while driving the car. The injured plaintiff sued the two named insureds and the mother.

The carrier covered the named insureds, but took the position that the mother was not a permissive user and therefore was not an insured under the policy. The mother stipulated to a judgment and assigned her bad faith and breach of contract claims to the injured plaintiff, who sued the carrier.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the insurer, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

The Four Corners Rule does not Apply to Determining if a Party is an Insured for Duty to Defend Purposes

The Third Circuit first addressed the issue of whether the four corners rule encompasses determinations of whether a party is an insured in the first instance.

The issue has never been addressed by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

The insurer argued it could not be bad faith to take the position the mother was not an insured, even if the complaint indicated otherwise, because the law on the issue is unsettled.  The carrier asserted it could use extrinsic evidence to show the mother was not an insured, and denied coverage on that basis. The Third Circuit agreed that “because Pennsylvania courts have not ruled on this issue, [the insurer] did not act in bad faith after it ‘reasonably determined that [mother] was not an insured under the Policy.’”

On the merits of coverage itself, the court concluded “that, when the insurer determines a claim is outside the scope of the insurance policy before a suit is filed, it has no duty to defend because it has effectively ‘confine[d] the claim to a recovery that the policy [does] not cover.’” Here, the insurer investigated the claim, and determined the mother was not an insured because she was not a permissive user.  “After that determination, the four corners rule no longer applied. [The insurer] did not have a duty to defend, and its actions do not show bad faith.”

Bad Faith Investigation

The court then went on to examine whether a bad faith claim could be stated solely on the basis that the insurer’s investigation was conducted in bad faith.  As repeated on this blog ad naseum, there is a genuine issue as to whether there is an independent bad faith claim for poor investigation practices when no coverage is otherwise due. For example see this post from January 2020, this post from August 2020, and this post from earlier in August 2020. A close examination in this case, however, shows the lack of investigation bad faith claim is actually intertwined with the coverage issue. Thus, this is not a case where a party is trying to prove bad faith even though no coverage is due.

Treating investigation based bad faith as a separate cause of action, rather than merely evidence of bad faith, the court observed “[g]ood faith in this context requires that an insurance determination be ‘made diligently and accurately, pursuant to a good faith investigation into the facts’ that is ‘sufficiently thorough to provide [the insurer] with a reasonable foundation for its actions.’” The mother argued the record showed she had “implied permission” to use the car, and the carrier acted in bad faith by unreasonably failing to recognize she had implied permission. The court disagreed, finding no adequate evidence to defeat summary judgment on the issue.

No Common Law Bad Faith Claim

“Finally, although the standard for common law bad faith diverges from statutory bad faith … the common law action for bad faith is a contract claim. Thus, because [the mother] was not an insured, she was not party to the contract, and she had no common law contract claim to assign….”

Date of Decision: December 8, 2020

Myers v. Geico Cas. Co., U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 19-1108, 2020 WL 7230600 (3d Cir. Dec. 8, 2020) (Fisher, Restrepo, Roth, JJ.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM CAN PROCEED WHERE THE POLICY TERMS WERE IN DISPUTE, AND NO PARTY COULD PRODUCE THE ORIGINAL POLICY (Western District)

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This case involves a missing disability insurance policy.

The insured claimed he never received the original policy in 1990.  By the time of his disability claim 25 years later, the insurer likewise did not have an original, and could only produce “substitute” or “replica” policies.  The insured did have various application forms, which the court considered in ruling on the instant summary judgment motion.

Without going into painstaking detail here, the insured claimed he had a lifetime disability policy, and the carrier claimed the insured was only entitled to two years of payments after his disability.  The insured sued for breach of contract, tort, bad faith and violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL). The insurer moved for summary judgment on all counts.

The court first rejected the insurer’s breach of contract motion. While the substitute and/or replica policies could support the insurer’s position that it had paid all that was due, the insurer still had to prove that these policies accurately reflected the actual policy.  Thus, the insured’s testimony concerning the lifetime coverage he requested and was told he received vs. the insurer’s testimony that the substitute and/or replica policies were identical to the original policy all had to be decided by the trier of fact. Therefore, summary judgment on the contract action was denied. The court also considered the insured’s reasonable expectations under Tonkovic and Rempel to be open issues of fact.

As to the bad faith claim, the court first set out the pertinent legal principles and reiterated that the insured did not have to prove self-dealing or ill-will under Rancosky.  The court then denied the summary judgment motion on bad faith.

The insured raised numerous facts supporting bad faith.

  1. The insured alleged the carrier’s adjuster sarcastically commented that the insured claim conveniently fell just within the policy’s expiration limit.

  2. When asked for a copy of the policy, the insurer’s response was inconsistent. It first sent a “substitute policy” and then a “replica policy”. Both policies had missing pages and both were different than the policy he believed he had actually purchased.

  3. The insured contended the carrier’s “practice of not maintaining original copies of policies is further evidence of bad faith toward its insureds because this practice shifts the burden to the insureds to produce the terms of the policies.”

  4. The carrier “never informed [the insured] of the relevant limitations of the Policy, even when it offered the opportunity to purchase a new policy when he approached age 65.”

On the other hand, the carrier argued it had a reasonable basis to deny coverage, precluding bad faith.  The court responded that “while this may ultimately be proven, the Court cannot determine on a motion for summary judgment whether [the insurer] had a reasonable basis for its denial. Moreover, as [the insured] observes, [the insurer’s] behavior during the claim process constitutes evidence in support of his claim that it acted in bad faith.”

The court likewise denied summary judgment on the UTPCPL claim. The insured was successful in framing the argument as a case of deceptive conduct in issuing the policy, and not merely a failure to pay (which is not actionable under the UTPCPL).

The insured “indicated that representations were made by [the insurer’s] agent that he was purchasing a disability policy that provided ‘lifetime benefits up to age 65,’ that he justifiably relied on these representations and that he suffered damages because [the insurer] later took the position that the Policy did not provide this benefit because he did not become disabled until after he reached age 60. He has presented sufficient evidence to support a claim under the UTPCPL that must be weighed by the trier of fact.”

Summary judgment on the remaining claims was likewise denied.

Date of Decision: November 30, 2020

Falcon v. The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-404, 2020 WL 7027482, (W.D. Pa. Nov. 30, 2020) (Dodge, M.J.)