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AFFIRMS TRIAL COURT’S BAD FAITH VERDICT, AND ITS REFUSAL TO AWARD PUNITIVE DAMAGES (Superior Court of Pennsylvania) (Non-precedential)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

NO BAD FAITH POSSIBLE WHEN CARRIER CONDUCTS A REASONABLE REVIEW, AND MAKES ITS DETERMINATION BASED UPON AN EXPERT REPORT (Philadelphia Federal)

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Like yesterday’s post, an insurer’s reliance on an expert report precluded bad faith.

The case involved first party coverage for a home heating oil spill.  The coverage issues involved whether the leak was caused by ongoing corrosion or was sudden and accidental, and/or or was subject to a pollution exclusion. The carrier denied coverage, and the insured brought breach of contract and bad faith claims. The insurer successfully moved for summary judgment on all counts.

No Coverage Due for Ongoing Corrosion and Under Pollution Exclusion

As to the corrosion issue, the insurer provided an unrefuted expert engineering report stating that long-term corrosion caused the leak. Thus, there were no dispute of fact on this coverage issue, warranting summary judgment for the insurer.

As to the pollution exclusion, the court did an exhaustive analysis of the case law on pollution exclusions and home heating oil.  Magistrate Judge Hey found, under the circumstances of this case, home heating oil qualified as a pollutant. “Here, Plaintiff contacted an environmental services firm about remediation and provided the court with the soil analysis identifying the same chemicals as were present in the soil in [prior precedent], and provided ample evidence that those chemicals were considered hazardous or pollutants.” Thus, “the record here presents more than sufficient evidence to allow the Court to apply the pollution exclusion to the facts of this case.”

No Bad Faith in Light of Expert Report

The court did not address the issue of whether the statutory bad faith claim had to be denied as a matter of law because no coverage was due. Rather, the court analyzed bad faith solely based on the quality of the insurer’s investigation.

Magistrate Judge Hey states, “[i]n order to determine whether an insurer acted in bad faith in conducting an investigation into whether an insured was entitled to benefits, courts have looked to the following: Judges of this court have held that an insurance company’s substantial and thorough investigation of an insurance claim, forming the basis of a company’s refusal to make or continue making benefit payments, establishes a reasonable basis that defeats a bad faith claim …. To defeat a bad faith claim, the insurance company need not show that the process used to reach its conclusion was flawless or that its investigatory methods eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusion. Rather, an insurance company simply must show that it conducted a review or investigation sufficiently thorough to yield a reasonable foundation for its action.”

In this case, the court found the carrier “had a reasonable basis for its decision to deny Plaintiff’s claim based on the engineering report finding that the leak was caused by long-term corrosion, excluded by the policy, and that the heating oil was a pollutant based on environmental testing, government regulations and prior caselaw. Plaintiff has presented no evidence presenting a genuine issue of material fact in this regard.”

Thus, the insurer had a reasonable basis to deny the claim.

Biela v. Westfield Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-4383, 2021 WL 181432 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 19, 2021) (Hey, M.J.)

NO BAD FAITH FOR EVEN NEGLIGENT CLAIM HANDLING, AND WHERE INSURER’S POSITION WAS SUPPORTED BY AN EXPERT (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM bad faith case had survived a motion to dismiss, but summary judgment ended the plaintiff’s bad faith claim.

Eastern District Judge Leeson had originally allowed the bad faith claim to proceed, as plaintiff had alleged more than a valuation dispute.  Our prior blog post can be found here.

The present bad faith summary judgment motion was before Magistrate Judge Perkin. His opinion goes through the claim handling history in minute detail.  Among other things, it shows nearly a year passed before the insured provided the claim handlers with all medical records and details on the specific injuries for which he was seeking full UIM policy limits.  The record shows the insurer assigned a specialist in medical resources (SMR) to review the medical file, and later had a medical examination performed by a physician. Discovery appeared to show potential errors in the SMR’s evaluation.

Based on the medical reviews, the insurer had not paid its full UIM limits, as plaintiff demanded, at the time suit was filed.  The insured challenged the conclusions of both the SMR and the physician on the origin and scope of his injuries in bringing the bad faith claim.

Magistrate Judge Perkin observed that an “insurance company need not show that the process used to reach its conclusion was flawless or that its investigatory methods eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusions. Rather, an insurance company simply must show that it conducted a review or investigation sufficiently thorough to yield a reasonable foundation for its action.”  Thus, “[e]ven if Defendant’s claims-handling processes were not ideal, there is no evidence in the record, let alone clear and convincing evidence, to indicate that Defendant’s purported mishandling of Plaintiff’s claim was motivated by a dishonest purpose or ill will.”

Citing older case law, the court states, “while under Pennsylvania law bad faith may extend to an insurer’s investigation and other conduct in handling the claim, that conduct must ‘import a dishonest purpose.’” “Invariably, this requires that the insurer lack a reasonable basis for denying coverage, as mere negligence or aggressive protection of an insurer’s interests is not bad faith.”

[Note: In 2017, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court made clear in Rancosky that “we hold that proof of an insurance company’s motive of self-interest or ill-will is not a prerequisite to prevailing in a bad faith claim under Section 8371, as argued by Appellant. While such evidence is probative of the second Terletsky prong, we hold that evidence of the insurer’s knowledge or recklessness as to its lack of a reasonable basis in denying policy benefits is sufficient.” A link to our Rancosky summary can be found here.]

Applying this law to the facts, Magistrate Judge Perkin found that “[a]lthough the plaintiff disagrees with the conclusions of both [the SMR and the carrier’s physician], it is clear that [the carrier] had a reasonable basis to value the claim based, at a minimum, on [the physician’s] report.” Assuming that the SMR “performed an insufficient and incorrect medical review of Plaintiff’s case, Defendant did not deny Plaintiff’s claim based upon that review, but rather continued its investigation of Plaintiff’s claim. Moreover, it is not apparent on the record that Defendant has ever denied coverage to Plaintiff.”

As to how the insurer handled the various bodily injury claims, the plaintiff’s doctors had sourced these all to the auto accident at issue, while the carrier’s physician only identified some of these injuries as being caused by the accident. Thus, Magistrate Judge Perkin found:

“Similarly, the fact that the plaintiff’s experts relate all of the plaintiff’s right knee and left ankle complaints to the accident does not provide a basis for bad faith. Defendant retained [an] orthopedic surgeon … to perform an independent medical examination and records review. After completing same, [defendant’s surgeon] concluded that that only the plaintiff’s initial meniscal tear and resultant arthroscopic surgery were related to the accident. None of the plaintiff’s left ankle complaints/treatments, or additional right knee treatment, was accident-related. Accordingly, [the carrier] had a reasonable basis for its claim handling.”

Date of Decision:  January 13, 2021

Perez-Garcia v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. CV 18-3783, 2021 WL 131343 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 13, 2021) (Perkin, M.J.)

(1) NO WANTON CONDUCT UNDER MVFRL INVOKING TREBLE DAMAGES AND SUPER INTEREST; (2) NO STATUTORY BAD FAITH WHERE (i) MVFRL PREEMPTS BAD FAITH STATUTE; (ii) THERE IS ONLY A VALUATION DISPUTE; (iii) INVESTIGATION REASONABLE; (4) BIAS CLAIMS ARE MERELY SUBJECTIVE (Philadelphia Federal)

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Plaintiff was injured in an auto accident and made both PIP claims and underinsured motorist (UIM) claims. She found the carrier’s settlement offers and negotiations wholly inadequate, and brought statutory bad faith claims, and claims for damages under the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL) seeking treble damages and super interest for the insurer’s allegedly “wanton” conduct concerning her medical benefit claims.

MVFRL Claims

The court found the insured could proceed on her PIP claim under a breach of contract theory. However, the MVFRL claim for treble damages and 12% interest, under 75 Pa. C.S. § 1797(b)(4), was dismissed without prejudice. Judge Pappert held plaintiff had not pleaded “wanton” conduct, a predicate for gaining the extraordinary remedies under this statute.

The insurer also asserted the MVFRL count actually alleged a breach of the duty of good fair dealing, and moreover constituted an improper effort to get relief under the Bad Faith Statute. It asked the court to strike certain averments related to this putative backdoor bad faith claim.

The court rejected this argument: “Although Count II appears to assert a claim under the MVFRL … it also appears to assert a claim for … alleged breach of the implied contractual duty to act in good faith related to her PIP coverage. …  Because [the insured] may pursue a claim for breach of her policy’s PIP coverage obligations and because motions to strike are ‘not favored and usually will be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties,’ the Court will not strike her allegations regarding the duty of good faith and fair dealing in Count II.”

MVFRL Claims and the Bad Faith Statute

The court then addressed the statutory bad faith claim.

The court first observed that unless the insurer’s “conduct falls outside of the scope of § 1797 of the MVFRL, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1797, and involves a bad faith abuse of the process challenging more than just the insurer’s denial of first party benefits, the MVFRL preempts any statutory bad faith claim concerning … PIP benefits.” The court made clear, “To the extent that the gravamen of [the] bad faith claim is the denial of first party medical benefits and nothing more, [the insurer’s] alleged conduct is within the scope of § 1797 of the MVFRL and therefore [she] is precluded from bringing such a claim.”

However, “[s]ection 8371 bad faith claims remain cognizable when the basis of a benefits denial does not relate to the reasonableness and necessity of treatment, or when an insurer’s conduct is obviously not amenable to resolution by the procedures set forth in Section 1797(b).”

Dispute Over Valuation not Bad Faith

The insured alleged the insurer delayed her claim and denied its value. The court found these allegations did not equate to allegations that the insurer actually deny the UIM or PIP. Rather, there was a dispute over valuation.

Analyzing the matter as a valuation dispute, Judge Pappert found the insured did not allege “facts sufficient to show [the insurer’s] valuation is unreasonable.” The insured’s subjective beliefs as to her claim’s value “is not indicative of bad faith because … subjective belief as to the value of the claim may reasonably, and permissibly, differ.”

Rather, “[t]o state a bad faith claim, [an insured] must do more than call [the insurer’s] offers low-ball.” These kind of conclusory and subjective allegations “suggest nothing more than a normal dispute between an insured and insurer.”

Low but Reasonable Offers Not Bad Faith

Bad faith does not exist “merely because an insurer makes a low but reasonable estimate of an insured’s damages.” Nor does a refusal “to immediately accede to a demand for the policy limit … without more, amount to bad faith.”

Insurer had Reasonable Basis to Deny Claim/No Adequate Claim of Bias

Next, Judge Pappert rejected the argument that the insured adequately pleaded the insurer lacked a reasonable basis to deny the claim’s value.  The insurer requested medical records and had an IME performed. It assessed the insured’s injuries based on that information.

The court did not give weight to conclusory allegations the doctor performing the IME was “a biased IME doctor” and “well-known as [someone] who provides so-called Independent Medical Examinations exclusively for and apparently to the liking of insurance companies….”  Further, that the plaintiff’s own doctor said she needed surgery did not, by itself, support a bad faith claim. The insurer was not unreasonable in relying  on the IME doctor’s assessment that the symptoms requiring surgery were unrelated to the accident at issue.

“In the absence of any supporting facts from which it might be inferred that [the] investigation was biased or unreasonable, this type of disagreement in an insurance case is not unusual, and cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.”

The court, however, permitted plaintiff to amend the statutory bad faith claim “to the extent it is not preempted by the MVFRL and to the extent she is able to allege facts stating a plausible claim for relief.”

Date of Decision: October 2, 2020

Canfield v. Amica Mutual Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-2794, 2020 WL 5878261 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 2, 2020) (Pappert, J.)

INSURER PUT ON UNREBUTTED EVIDENCE THAT ITS CLAIM DENIAL WAS REASONABLE (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this case, the insurer moved for summary judgment on bad faith, and the insured did not respond to the motion. After a review of the record and legal arguments, the Court granted the insurer’s motion.

The case involved a personal injury. The insurer had an independent medical review performed on the insured’s medical records. The carrier’s doctor concluded that the injuries the insured alleged were not the result of the accident at issue. Rather, those injuries were caused by a prior accident. The carrier argued this alone was sufficient to establish a reasonable basis to deny coverage.

As stated, the insured did not respond to the carrier’s motion, and thus put forward no evidence that the insurer acted in bad faith by failing to consider the relevant medical records. Judge Brody agreed:

“After reviewing [the] motion and evidence, I conclude that [the insurer] has satisfied its summary-judgment burden, shifting the burden to Plaintiff to demonstrate the existence of genuine disputes of material fact that preclude summary judgment. Plaintiff has failed to carry his burden. Despite several chances to do so, Plaintiff never filed any objection to [the] Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. He has not pointed to any evidence that [the insurer] behaved in bad faith, nor has he offered any evidence to refute the evidence [the insurer] offered in support of its motion.”

Date of Decision: August 13, 2020

Dwyer v. Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-2814, 2020 WL 4699047 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 13, 2020) (Brody, J.)

PLAINTIFFS ADEQUATELY PLEAD DELAY, INADEQUATE INVESTIGATION, AND LACK OF COMMUNICATION TO SUPPORT BAD FAITH CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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This is one of the few recent cases finding that a bad faith plaintiff met federal pleading standards, surviving a motion to dismiss.

In this UIM case, the plaintiffs alleged the insured husband suffered serious and permanent bodily injuries, requiring ongoing treatment. The tortfeasor’s carrier paid $250,000, and the insureds sought the full UIM coverage limit, $1,000,000, from the insurer. The insurer’s highest offer was $200,000, only made nearly three years after the original claim. The insureds brought breach of contract and bad faith claims.

The complaint alleged the insureds cooperated with the carrier, providing information over a 32-month period, “with the necessary liquidated and unliquidated damages information from which Defendant could fairly evaluate and make a timely and reasonable offer on the claim.” The insureds estimated their damages in excess of $1,000,000, “based on Plaintiffs’ unchallenged medical records, narrative reports, and vocational loss and medical prognosis reports, which they provided to Defendant.” They further alleged the carrier “failed to timely respond or comply with Plaintiffs’ counsel’s request for Defendant to fairly evaluate the underinsured motorist claim.”

The insureds focused their bad faith arguments on the insurer’s alleged conduct over the 32-month time period. They alleged the carrier failed to properly respond to the claim and/or failed to evaluate the UIM claim; failed to offer a payment or to pay in good faith; and failed to inform the insureds of its evaluation of their claim. The insureds asserted the carrier “did not have a reasonable basis for delaying and/or denying underinsured motorist benefits or a partial tender of such under the policy” for nearly three years. The insureds labeled the refusal to pay policy limits as frivolous and unfounded, adding that the insurer “lacked a legal and factual basis” for its valuation of the claim.

The insurer moved to dismiss for failing to adequately plead a bad faith claim.

The court first focused on delay. Delay is a bad faith factor, but standing alone does not make out an automatic case for bad faith. In evaluating whether delay might constitute bad faith, “’[t]he primary consideration is the degree to which a defendant insurer knew it had no basis to deny the claimant: if delay is attributable to the need to investigate further or even to simple negligence, no bad faith has occurred.’” (Court’s emphasis)

In beginning his analysis, Judge Jones took cognizance of the potential negative impact of a 32-month window between the claim’s submission and the carrier’s first offer, though again, standing alone this could not prove bad faith. However, as pleaded in the complaint, there were additional factual allegations fleshing out the bad faith delay argument. These included the absence of any facts suggesting the husband was at fault, or that there was any question the UIM policy limit was $1,000,000. The insureds further pleaded: (i) the husband suffered multiple injuries with ongoing expenses; (ii) they provided medical records, reports, vocational loss information and medical prognoses over the 32-month period; and (3) their liquidated and unliquidated damage estimates to the insurer exceeded the $1,000,000 policy limit.

As to the carrier’s conduct, the insureds alleged that during the 32-month period the insurer did not seek an independent medical examination, and did not conduct a records review to properly evaluate the claim. The insureds added that the carrier’s motion to dismiss did not include any argument that the “delay was attributable to the need to investigate further or even to simple negligence.”

On these facts, Judge Jones found the plaintiffs set forth a plausible bad faith claim, focusing on a lack of investigation and failure to communicate. He distinguished this pleading from numerous other cases dismissing conclusory bad faith claims. He stated, “[i]n particular, it is wholly plausible that Defendant did not have a reasonable basis for denying Plaintiffs’ monies owed based upon the information Plaintiffs provided Defendant. Additionally, viewing the time lapse in conjunction with the lack of an independent medical evaluation by Defendant, it is plausible that Defendant knew of, or recklessly disregarded, its lack of a reasonable basis for denying Plaintiffs’ benefits of the policy.”

Judge Jones also rejected the argument that this was merely a disagreement over fair valuation. On a motion to dismiss, the court had to assume the truth of the plaintiffs’ factual allegations. The allegations set out a plausible case the insurer made an unreasonably low offer, or no offer, potentially constituting bad faith conduct. Judge Jones looked to Judge Stengel’s 2017 Davis decision to support this finding.

Date of Decision: April 17, 2020

Lowndes v. Travelers Property Casualty Co. of America, U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-5823, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67620 (E.D. Pa. April 17, 2020) (Jones, II, J.)

 

INSURER REASONABLY RELYING ON ENGINEERING INSPECTION REPORT CANNOT BE LIABLE FOR BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insureds had two nearly identical losses. In 2016, there was water damage to their roof and interior home damage. The insurer originally paid for the interior damage, while having an engineer inspect the roof. The engineer concluded the roof damage was not the result of a storm, but the result of uncovered faulty construction. Moreover, he concluded that even the interior home damage resulted from the uncovered faulty roof construction. The insurer issued a denial letter on this basis and the insureds did not respond.

Two years later, there was another storm, with new roof and interior damage. The insurer sent out the same engineer who reached the same conclusions, i.e., the damage resulted from faulty construction, not storm damage. Further, the record showed that the insureds had not repaired the roof after the original loss two years earlier. Again, under the policy, “coverage for damage caused by faulty, inadequate, or defective workmanship was explicitly excluded in their homeowner’s insurance policy.” Thus, the insurer denied the second claim.

On the second claim, the insured engaged a public adjuster and their own engineer. The public adjuster inspected the home, and took the position the insureds were not seeking coverage for faulty construction, but for damage caused by wind, snow and ice, on the theory that the poorly installed roof only made the home susceptible to these covered elements. The insurer’s engineer reviewed the other engineer’s report, but did not change his position, nor did the insurer rescind its denial.

The insureds sued for breach of contract and bad faith. The insurer moved for summary judgment on the bad faith claim.

The court observed that an insurer “may defeat a claim of bad faith by showing that it had a reasonable basis for its actions.” The court tied this axiom to the legal principle that summary judgment is warranted in bad faith cases when insureds cannot meet their burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the insurer’s conduct was unreasonable.

The insureds attempted to argue that the insurer improperly relied on its expert’s denying the first claim to deny the second, independent, claim. Judge Bartle rejected that argument.

The insureds conceded they never repaired the original damages identified two years earlier. Further, they did not dispute that the insurer’s engineer came out a second time and did a completely new report concluding “that the same unrepaired faulty construction caused the claimed damage,” and further rejecting the insureds’ claim the damage was caused by wind, ice, and snow.

In finding no bad faith, Judge Bartle stated “the cause of damage is not material to the plaintiffs’ bad faith claim. … Rather, the plaintiffs must present clear and convincing evidence to substantiate their claim that [the insurer] acted unreasonably.” They did not do so in this case.

The record demonstrated the insurer sent its engineer out to do a second inspection, and that the second denial was based on the second inspection, not events that transpired two years earlier. Once it was established that the insurer did base its denial on a current second inspection, the court found that “[f]or purposes of defeating a bad faith claim, an insurer may rely on the conclusions of its independent experts.”

Thus, summary judgment was granted on the bad faith claim.

Date of Decision: April 9, 2020

Balu v. The Cincinnati Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania NO. 19-3604, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63987 (E.D. Pa. April 9, 2020 (Bartle, J.)

(1) NO COVERAGE DUE MEANS NO BAD FAITH AS A MATTER OF LAW ON COVERAGE DENIAL; (2) REASONABLE RELIANCE ON ENGINEERING EXPERT NEGATES BAD FAITH INVESTIGATION CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insured church’s roof collapsed. The insurer denied coverage on the basis that its engineer determined the causal factors were “a combination of deferred maintenance, improper roof slope, and poor drainage,” and none of these collapse factors are covered causes of loss under the policy.

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The church’s evidence for coverage came from its public adjuster. He testified (1) there was heavy wind and rain “close” to the date of loss; (2) there was no long term damage from roof leaks; and (3) and even if so, he doubted any such leaks were the “main factor” in the roof’s collapse. The public adjuster, however, “did not offer an opinion as to what caused the roof’s collapse,” and the church did not produce “any other evidence suggesting the cause of the roof’s collapse was a covered event under the policy.”

The insurer successfully moved for summary judgment on both counts.

No Coverage Due

In granting summary judgment on the breach of contract claim, Judge Robreno stated the church “failed to produce any evidence, beyond mere speculation, that the roof’s collapse was caused by a wind and rain event.” Thus, there were no facts sufficient to show the roof’s collapse fell within a covered cause, and it could not meet its burden of proof.

Bad Faith Claim Analyzed for both Improper Coverage Denial and Inadequate Investigation

On the bad faith claim, the church alleged both improper denial and failure to conduct a proper investigation. The court noted that because a number of courts have held statutory bad faith claims are not contingent on the outcome of the breach of contract claim, the court would consider the inadequate investigation claim as a separate basis for plaintiff’s statutory bad faith claim. The court further observed Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has not decided this specific issue.

[We have noted before on this Blog that a failure to investigate, standing alone, is arguably not a cognizable claim under the Bad Faith Statute based on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life.]

As to improper denial, the court found for the insurer as a matter of law. “A finding that denial of the claim under the policy was warranted is inconsistent with a claim that [the insurer] acted in bad faith in denying the claim.”

As to the inadequate investigation claim, Judge Robreno observed that “[i]nsurance companies act reasonably, and do not exercise bad faith, when they deny claims based upon engineering experts’ reports.” He relied on his 2011 decision in El Bor v. Firemen’s Fund, and Western District Judge Fischer’s decision in Palmisano v. State Farm.

The court then examined the reasonableness of the insurer’s reliance. There was no dispute the engineer’s report pre-dated the carrier’s claim denial. Further, there was no support in the record for the insured’s assertions that the report was “’devoid of facts, experiments, measurements, testing, and scientific principles.’” Rather, the report was based on an actual property inspection, and that the engineer provided the carrier “with photographs and measurements of the property.”

On the other hand, in its denial letter the carrier asked the church if it could provide any additional information supporting coverage. It gave the insured 30 days to provide any further information supporting coverage, but nothing was forthcoming.

The court stated that under these facts, there was no evidence that the insurer relied on the report in bad faith, observing that even if an insurer’s expert were incorrect, that alone “’is not evidence that his conclusions were unreasonable or that Defendant acted unreasonably in relying upon them.’”

Date of Decision: April 7, 2020

Gethsemane FBH Church of God v. Nationwide Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-03677, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60780 (E.D. Pa. April 7, 2020) (Robreno, J.)

 

(1) NO BAD FAITH WHERE COVERAGE LAW UNCERTAIN (2) BAD FAITH POSSIBLE FOR DELAY AND DENIAL OF ALLEGEDLY UNADDRESSED CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involved a highly disputed factual issue on coverage, with no clear guidance in the case law. The court denied summary judgment on the insured’s breach of contract claim, and rendered a split decision on the two bad faith claims.

The Close Coverage Call

Coverage existed if a roof was damaged by wind, allowing water to enter a building. The issue was whether a tarp could be considered part of a roof. The insurer denied coverage on the basis the tarp at issue was a temporary stopgap when blown off during a windstorm. The insured argued the tarp was sufficiently stable and integrated to be part of a roof system when it was blown off.

The court looked at local and national case law on when a tarp might be part of a more permanent structure, and thus part of a roof. The court found the issue highly fact-driven under this case law, and inappropriate for summary judgment. A jury had to decide the issue after hearing the disputed evidence and expert opinions.

The Bad Faith Claims

On the bad faith claims, the court stated that both denial of a benefit and/or improper investigative practices could constitute bad faith.

[As we have written on this Blog ad naseum, the idea that statutory bad faith covers anything other than benefit denials arguably runs contrary to Pennsylvania Supreme Court case law. In the 2007 Toy v. Metropolitan Life decision, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court strongly appears to state that only denial of a benefit creates a cognizable statutory bad faith action, whereas matters like poor claims handling would be evidence of bad faith. See this article.

A few months later, the Supreme Court seems to confirm this conclusion. In Ash v. Continental Insurance Company, citing Toy, the Supreme Court states, “The bad faith insurance statute, on the other hand, is concerned with ‘the duty of good faith and fair dealing in the parties’ contract and the manner by which an insurer discharge[s] its obligation of defense and indemnification in the third party claim context or its obligation to pay for a loss in the first party claim context.’” (Emphasis added)

While it appears highly likely Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court made clear 13 years ago that section 8371 is limited to claims for denying benefits, numerous subsequent opinions conclude that there can be other bases for statutory bad faith. These cases typically do not address Toy or Ash in reaching this conclusion.]

In the present case, the insured allegedly made two separate claims, 19 days apart. The first had to do with wind damage to roof shingles, and the second addressed the issue concerning the tarp and interior water damage.

Bad Faith Possible for Undue Delay

On the first claim, the insured alleged it gave proper notice of loss, and the insurer failed to respond at all to the claim. The insurer alleged it had no notice, but in any event took the position that its denial letter addressed both the roof shingle and tarp claims.

The court found that there was an issue of whether the insurer had constructive notice of the first claim, even without formal notice. The adjuster was made fully aware of the event, but it is unclear if the insurer thought of this as a distinct event or just part of the continuum in a single claim. It was also unclear whether the denial letter actually addressed the shingle damage as such.

Thus, bad faith had to go to the jury. “If a jury were to conclude that Defendant was aware that Plaintiff had made a claim for the April damage, but ignored it, that could be seen as an objectively unreasonable, frivolous, intentional refusal to pay (or to otherwise resolve the claim in a timely fashion).”

[While there are certainly claims handling issues here regarding delay and responsiveness to an insured, this claim ultimately includes the denial of a benefit. Thus, the issue of whether there can be statutory bad faith without the denial of a benefit is not actually before the court.]

No Bad Faith where Governing Law is Uncertain

As to the second claim, the insurer won summary judgment. This gets back to the dispute over whether the tarp constitutes a roof. “An insurer who makes a reasonable legal conclusion based on an uncertain area of the law has not acted in bad faith.” Thus, “[w]ith no binding guidance from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or the Third Circuit, and numerous fact-intensive cases on the subject, Defendant reasonably interpreted the membrane, and not the tarp, to be the roof. Even if that call is ultimately found to have been incorrect, Defendant did not act in bad faith by denying the claim.”

Date of Decision: March 18, 2020

Harrisburg v. Axis Surplus Ins. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-1213, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48115 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 18, 2020) (Beetlestone, J.)

NO BAD FAITH: (1) LOW BUT REASONABLE SETTLEMENT OFFER; (2) FAILURE TO PAY FULL RESERVES NOT BAD FAITH; (3) ADDITIONAL INVESTIGATION WOULD NOT HAVE CHANGED RESULT; (4) INSURED DELAYED CLAIMS HANDLING (Western District)

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In this UIM bad faith case, the court set out a detailed claims handling history. It shows an active claims handler, conflicting expert reports, and what appears to be a genuine dispute over the scope of the insured’s injury. The central discrepancy is between permanent disability vs. no medical record of serious injury.

The court granted summary judgment on bad faith, finding the insured could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard. It specifically addressed four issues in reaching this conclusion.

  1. Was the Settlement Offer Unreasonably Low?

The insured claimed losses in excess of $2,000,000. The UIM insurer offered $25,000. As the tortfeasor’s carrier paid $100,000, this meant the UIM carrier valued the claim at $125,000.

The court set out the relevant law. Low but reasonable offers are not bad faith, but “low-ball offers which bear no reasonable relationship to an insured’s actual losses can constitute bad faith….” A carrier can reasonably rely on expert opinion when investigating claims. In this context, insurers “can rely on IMEs of qualified health professionals who examine claimants in a usual and customary manner.”

First, the court found the claims handler’s well documented file showed an IME was warranted. Next, the court examined the claims handler’s review of the insured’s economic expert’s report of over a $2,000,000. The court found that multiple medical reports provided the claims handler with a reasonable basis to question the economic expert’s critical assumption of permanent disabled. “Thus, with no other evidence to establish [the insured’s] economic losses other than [the economic expert’s] report that assumes total disability, no reasonable juror could find bad faith by clear and convincing evidence from [the] $25,000 settlement offer to [the insured].”

  1. Reserves

Reserves were set at $55,000. The insured asserted the insurer should have offered the $55,000, rather than $25,000. The court stated that an insurance company must set reserves aside when placed on notice of a possible loss arising under its policy. “However, the failure of a carrier to offer its full settlement authority does not constitute bad faith.” In the present case, “because the Court finds no sufficient evidence of bad faith as to the $25,000 settlement offer, there is likewise no bad faith in [the insurer’s] reserve for this UIM claim.”

  1. Adequacy of Investigation

To prove bad faith investigation, the insured “must show that the outcome of the case would have been different if the insurer had done what the insured wanted done.” The putative investigative failures here would not have changed the result.

Thus, even if the claims handler had reviewed the economic loss reports with her own economic experts, sought medical authorizations, or spoken to treating physicians or the tortfeasor’s lawyer, this additional investigation would not have altered the IME opinions that there was no permanent injury, and that any injuries had resolved. These IMEs provided a reasonable basis to contest value. “Therefore, [the insured] cannot meet his burden to show that a reasonable juror could find by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] would have evaluated [the] claim differently had it conducted an earlier or different investigation as argued by plaintiff’s counsel.”

  1. Unnecessary Delay in Investigation

“In order for an insured to recover for bad faith from delay, an insured must demonstrate that ‘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 first observed that much of the delay in this matter was caused by the insured. There were delays in providing information and producing documents to the insurer. The insured also changed his damage theory during the claims handling process, which led to insurer to require additional evaluations. Thus, “no reasonable juror could conclude by clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] acted in bad faith in the timeline of its investigation….”

Date of Decision: February 19, 2020

Stewart v. GEICO Insurance, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania 2:18-CV-00791-MJH, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28459 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 19, 2020) (Horan, J.)

Our thanks to Attorney Dan Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.