Archive for the 'PA – Claims Handling (unreasonable)' Category

“SPARSE” FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS ENOUGH TO “NUDGE” CLAIM “ACROSS THE LINE FROM CONCEIVABLE TO PLAUSIBLE” (Middle District)

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For the second time in a week, Middle District Judge Mariani denied an insurer’s motion to dismiss a bad faith claim.  Judge Mariani’s June 3, 2021 decision in Signature Building Systems v. Motorist Mutual is summarized here.

This is a breach of contract and bad faith underinsured motorist action.  The complaint alleged the following.

The insured suffered significant injuries requiring ongoing treatment.  The tortfeasor had $15,000 in coverage, but the insured’s UIM limit on her own policy was $250,000.  The insured pursued underinsured motorist coverage against her carrier.

The insured “fully complied with all terms, conditions, and duties imposed upon her by her Auto Policy.” She “’continually’ provided medical records and reports to Defendant, ‘outlining her injuries, special damages, medical expenses, as well as evidencing her physical pain and suffering’ and has cooperated with Defendant ‘in every way throughout the life of her claims.’”

The insured made the following bad faith allegations:

  1. Failing to properly investigate [the] claim upon notification of same;

  2. Refusing to pay [the] claims without conducting a reasonable investigation based upon all available information;

  3. Failing to promptly and objectively evaluate [the] claims;

  4. Unreasonably delaying the objective and fair evaluation of [the] claim;

  5. Causing unreasonably [sic] delay in all aspects of the handling of [the] claim;

  6. Dilatory and abusive claims handling;

  7. Conducting an unfair, unreasonable and dilatory investigation of [the] claims;

  8. Failing to act in good faith to effectuate prompt, fair, and equitable settlement of [the] claim;

  9. Ignoring competent and overwhelming medical evidence substantiating [the insured’s] injuries and resulting disability;

  10. Ignoring competent and overwhelming medical evidence that injuries the [insured] sustained in the subject motor vehicle have not resolved.

The carrier moved to dismiss the bad faith claim, arguing the foregoing was mere boilerplate that did not meet federal plausible pleading standards.  Judge Mariani disagreed.

First he has no problem in finding the complaint sets out an underinsured motorist coverage claim, and the insured fully complied with the policy and her duties in cooperating with the insurer by “continually” providing medical records that laid out the details of her injuries.

Next, Judge Mariani finds the complaint alleges that despite the insured’s compliance, “Defendant failed to properly investigate her claim, refused to pay her but did not conduct a reasonable investigation, and failed to promptly and objectively evaluate her claim but instead delayed evaluating her claim. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendant’s investigation of her claim was ‘unfair, unreasonable and dilatory’ and that Defendant ignored the medical evidence substantiating her injuries and resulting disability.”

This was enough to state a plausible claim. Although the complaint was “sparse with respect to the bad faith claim, the Complaint contains sufficient well-pleaded factual allegations to ‘nudge[ ]’ Plaintiffs’ claim ‘across the line from conceivable to plausible….” [Note: Judge Mariani quotes this same language in his March 2021 Chuplis decision, summarized here.]

For anyone pleading a bad faith claim, or seeking to dismiss such a claim, it is worthwhile to compare this opinion with Judge Pratter’s Brown opinion, summarized yesterday, or the myriad other cases finding the pleading either lacked, or reached, plausibility.

Date of Decision:  June 10, 2021

Dougherty v. American States Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:20-CV-2166, 2021 WL 2383229 (M.D. Pa. June 10, 2021) (Mariani, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM PROCEEDS EVEN AFTER CONTRACT CLAIM DISMISSED FOR UNTIMELY FILING (Western District)

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The insurer denied auto theft coverage based on an exclusion.  The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith, and also alleged breach of a fiduciary duty. The carrier moved to dismiss the breach of contract and bad faith claims, and to strike the fiduciary duty language.

The court dismissed the breach of contract claim for failing to bring action within the time period required under the policy.

The court, however, allowed the insured’s bad faith claim to proceed.  The bad faith claim was based on an unreasonable investigation theory.  The court stated:

“On the existing record at this early stage of the litigation, [the insured] states a plausible claim for coverage and, while he will have to prove his bad faith claim by ‘clear and convincing evidence,’ … the allegations in the Complaint that [the insurer] failed to investigate his claim and knowingly set the date of loss outside the policy period “may … show bad faith.’ … Because [the] well-pleaded assertions of unreasonable claims processing and investigation adequately state a plausible bad faith claim under Section 8371, dismissal is not warranted and the Motion to Dismiss Count II of the Complaint is denied.”

The court did strike the allegation that the carrier’s breach of fiduciary duty constituted bad faith, observing:

In Keefe v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 203 F.3d 218, 227–28 (3d Cir. 2000), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that an insurer’s fiduciary obligations to an insured are limited to claims handling and resolution of third-party claims against an insured. “Under Pennsylvania law, a fiduciary duty higher than the duty of good faith and fair dealing does not arise out of an insurance contract until an insurer asserts a stated right under the policy to handle all claims asserted against the insured.” … Keefe has been applied to the cancellation of a life insurance policy and to policyholders’ uninsured and underinsured motorist claims where, like the present claim, the insurer has not asserted a right to resolve third-party claims against the insured. … Accordingly, given [the insured’s] failure to respond to the Motion to Strike, and the weight of precedential authority limiting an insurer’s fiduciary obligations to the resolution of third-party claims against an insured, the Motion to Strike is granted.

Date of Decision:  May 11, 2021

Peltz v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 21-0005, 2021 WL 1893125 (W.D. Pa. May 11, 2021) (Kelly, M.J.)

INSURER’S FAILURE TO FOLLOW UP ON ITS OWN INVESTIGATION IDENTIFYING AN ACTUAL LOSS, AND THEN REFUSING TO MAKE ANY PAYMENT, PLAUSIBLY ALLEGES BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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Eastern District Judge Padova permitted this first party property damage bad faith claim to proceed, finding the complaint’s allegations were not merely conclusory.

The insureds pleaded the following facts. They reported property damage to their insurer. The carrier hired a construction company to inspect the property, determine needed repairs, and calculate the loss.  The contractor found the property’s foundation and structure were damaged, but “did not calculate the amount of the loss because [the insurer] needed to first determine ‘the extent of the corrective work conducted at or related to [a] neighboring property.’”

The insurer allegedly never made that determination, however, and then refused to pay for the plaintiffs’ known damages. The insureds retained their own expert who valued repairs at over $211,000.

Judge Padova found these allegations went beyond the kind of conclusory pleadings rejected by other courts.

He recognized the principle that: “Implicit in section 8371 is the requirement that the insurer properly investigate claims prior to refusing to pay the proceeds of the policy to its insured.”

Here, the insurer allegedly “acted in bad faith by failing to investigate in good faith and disregarding its own expert’s determination that the structure and foundation of the property were damaged.” Specifically, the complaint alleged the insurer retained an expert to investigate the property damage and then disregarded that expert’s damage assessment, “failed to determine the extent of the corrective work conducted at the neighboring property, refused to investigate the loss to determine what it would cost to repair the foundation and building structure of Plaintiffs’ property, failed to ascertain the amount of the loss, and failed to pay Plaintiffs for the damage to the exterior, foundation, and building structure of their property.”

These factual allegations plausibly stated “a claim for bad faith stemming from [a] failure to properly investigate the damage to Plaintiffs’ property prior to denying coverage.”

Date of Decision:  April 22, 2021

Procoppio v. Foremost Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-5184, 2021 WL 1581487 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 22, 2021) (Padova, J.)

WESTERN DISTRICT JUDGE WIEGAND ISSUES TWO BAD FAITH OPINIONS: (1) BAD FAITH CLAIM PLAUSIBLE WHERE COVERAGE ISSUES REMAIN OPEN (2) NO BAD FAITH FOR PRE-CONTRACT CONDUCT (Western District)

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On April 16 and 21, 2021, Western District Judge Wiegand issued bad faith opinions.  In the first case, she allowed the claim to proceed, denying a motion to dismiss. In the second, the conduct at issue did not involve any benefit denial, but only alleged pre-contract deception, which is not subject to Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371.

CASE 1: BAD FAITH CLAIM STATED

In Maronda Homes, LLC v. Motorists Mutual Insurance Company, Judge Wiegand allowed an additional insured’s statutory bad faith claim to proceed, denying the insurer’s motion to dismiss.

The insurer rejected additional insured coverage, asserting (1) that the additional insured endorsement was not triggered through any alleged conduct of the named insured, and (2) that even if triggered, an exclusion applied. The additional insured raised claims for breach of contract, contractual bad faith, and statutory bad faith. The insurer moved to dismiss all claims.

Judge Wiegand first rejected the insurer’s argument that the complaint did not allege any wrongdoing by the named insured that could trigger coverage under the additional insured endorsement.  She also found factual issues remained open as to whether coverage was excluded because the work was (1) completed or (2) put to its intended use. This could not be decided at the motion to dismiss state.

Judge Wiegand did dismiss the breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing count. “[U]nder Pennsylvania law, a ‘claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is subsumed in a breach of contract claim.’” Thus, “a claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing ‘separate and distinct from a breach of contract claim’ cannot be maintained because ‘the covenant does nothing more than imply certain obligations into the contract itself.’”

By contrast, Judge Wiegand allowed the statutory bad faith claim to proceed. First, she observed that the policy exclusion at issue remained open and undecided, so the insurer could not argue the coverage denial was per se reasonable based on the policy exclusion language.  She then found the insured’s allegations that the insurer “failed to investigate Plaintiff’s tender of the claims, denied coverage despite cooperatively participating in attempts to settle the Underlying Actions, and rejected settlement offers … within the limits of the Policy … are sufficient at this stage to survive Defendant’s Motion.”

Date of Decision:  April 16, 2021

Maronda Homes, LLC v. Motorists Mutual Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-01526-CCW, 2021 WL 1518009 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 16, 2021) (Wiegand, J.)

CASE 2: NO STATUTORY BAD FAITH POSSIBLE FOR PRE-POLICY CONDUCT

The second case involved a first party property damage claim, where a swimming pool popped out of the ground due to subsurface water pressure. A policy exclusion clearly excluded coverage for subsurface water pressure causing damages, but the insureds still pursued the claim.  They alleged that prior to purchasing the policy, the insurer’s agent led them to believe the policy would cover them for damages to in-ground pools “from foreseeable types of harm,” which equated to a promise concerning subsurface water pressure damage being covered.

After the coverage denial, the insureds brought claims to reform the policy to cover “pool popping,” for statutory bad faith, and for violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL). The insurer successfully moved to dismiss all claims.

First, Judge Wiegand found that the policy could not be reformed based on mutual mistake, unilateral mistake, or fraud.  She further found that this was not a case where the reasonable expectations doctrine would permit reformation of clear policy language.

Second, she dismissed the statutory bad faith claim.  As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made clear in Toy v. Metropolitan Life, the bad faith statute only applies when the insurer had denied a policy benefit.  Deceptive practices used to induce an insured to enter an unfavorable insurance policy do not fall within the bad faith statute’s ambit.

Finally, because the insureds did not plead justifiable reliance, there could be no UTPCPL claim.

Date of Decision: April 21, 2021

Palek v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-00170-CCW, 2021 WL 1561507 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 21, 2021) (Wiegand, J.)

BANKRUPTCY COURT PERMITS BAD FAITH CLAIM TO PROCEED, EVEN AFTER BREACH OF CONTRACT CLAIM DISMISSED (Philadelphia Bankruptcy Court)

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This is a rare bad faith case raised before a Bankruptcy Court in the context of an adversary proceeding.

The bankrupt/insureds brought a first party property damage claim against an excess insurer.  It is not fully clear from the record if the insureds were parties to the excess insurance agreement, which appears to be designed to protect a mortgage holder.  In any event, the court held there was nothing in the record that could establish excess coverage was triggered.  Thus, the court granted summary judgment on the breach of contract claim, finding no excess coverage possibly due that could have invoked the insurance contract’s coverage obligations.

The absence of any benefits being due, however, did not stop the court from analyzing the bad faith claim, and ultimately allowing that claim to proceed.

As discussed many times in this blog, there is a serious issue about whether a statutory bad faith claim can proceed if the insurer has not denied any benefit under an insurance policy, i.e., payment of a first party claim or defense and indemnification under a liability insurance policy. This limitation appears to be the required by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life.  An article addressing this issue can be found here.  See also this January 2020 post, this March 2021 post, and this January 2021 post questioning whether the non-precedential Third Circuit decision in Gallatin Fuels failed to consider Toy in reaching the conclusion that it was possible to pursue a bad faith claim when no policy was even in effect at the time of the loss.

In the present adversary proceeding, the court chiefly relied on Gallatin Fuels for the proposition that statutory bad faith claims can be pursued even where no benefits are due because there is no enforceable insurance contract, solely based on claims of poor investigation practices and possible misrepresentations during the investigation.

The court also relied on Pennsylvania’s Unfair Insurance Practices Act and Unfair Claim Settlement Practices regulations in finding a potential basis for bad faith. In particular, the court cites, 31 Pa. Code § 146.6 (providing “that every insurer shall complete investigation of a claim within thirty days after notification of the claim unless it cannot reasonably be completed in that time. It further provides that if the investigation cannot be completed within that timeframe, every forty-five days thereafter, the insurer shall provide the claimant with a reasonable explanation for the delay and state when a decision on the claim may be expected.”)

Courts approach violations of the UIPA and UCSP regulations differently, ranging from a complete prohibition on considering their violation in proving statutory bad faith cases, to using those violations as evidence of bad faith.  Our May 2, 2019 post summarizes different approaches courts take in considering UIPA and Unfair Claim Settlement Practices regulations.

Most recently on this Blog, we summarized Western District Magistrate Judge Dodge’s December 2020 Kleinz v. Unitrin opinion. Magistrate Judge Dodge found that since the seminal Terletsky opinion in 1994, “federal courts have uniformly rejected plaintiffs’ attempt to rely on UIPA violations to support bad faith claims.” She found that contrary to the insured’s arguments that some federal cases hold otherwise, “for the past 26 years, case law in federal courts on this issue has been consistent.”  Magistrate Judge Dodge cites, among other cases, the Third Circuit’s opinion in Leach, Judge Gibson’s 2019 Horvath opinion, Judge Fisher’s 2014 Kelman decision (while sitting by designation in the Western District), Judge Kosik’s 2007 Oehlmann decision, and Judge Conti’s 2007 Loos opinion.

Some other recent opinions look unfavorably toward using UIPA and UCSP violations to make the statutory bad faith case. See, e.g., Judge Quiñones Alejandro’s December 2020 White Opinion, and Judge Wolson’s April 2020 Live Face decision. In his March 2020 Clapps decision, Judge Darnell Jones notes that while there is no private right of action under the UIPA or UCSP regulations, there might be some circumstances where their violation might be the premise for a bad faith case.

All that being said, the bad faith claim was allowed to proceed in this case, in light of claim handling conduct that clearly troubled the court.

Date of Decision:  April 15, 2021

In Re Lena D. Lewis, Debtor, Lewis v. U.S. Bank National Association, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. AP 18-00240-AMC, 2021 WL 1424721 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. Apr. 15, 2021) (Chan, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM PLAUSIBLE BASED ON UNREASONABLY LOW SETTLEMENT OFFER MADE AFTER LONG DELAY (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM bad faith claim was allowed to proceed, after Eastern District Judge Pratter denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss.

The plaintiff pleaded that he suffered serious and permanent injuries, including severe disc injuries, post-concussion syndrome and traumatic brain injury.  The insured provided the carrier notice of these injuries and his intent to pursue underinsured motorist coverage.

The policy provided $900,000 in UIM benefits, which the court described as “heightened coverage in exchange for which [the insured] paid increased premiums.”

The complaint alleges the initial demand came in October 2018, accompanied by relevant medical records and reports. The insured alleged he later sent the carrier supplemental records and expert reports on the extent of his injuries, costs of care (nearly $290,000), and estimated lost earnings ($854,000).

The insurer allegedly promised to evaluate the claim by the end of May 2020, and to make an offer at that time.  The insured alleges, however, that “[n]either were provided to him despite repeated follow-ups. Instead, in September 2020—roughly 20 months after the initial demand—[the insurer] offered … $75,000.”

Judge Pratter then states the “wide disparity between [the] demand and [the] offer prompted this case.”

Judge Pratter found “[t]he allegations as currently pled are at least sufficient to support a bad faith claim.” She recognized the many cases dismissing bad faith claims for only pleading bare bones allegations, “[b]ut the Complaint in its present iteration alleges more than boilerplate legal conclusions and a ‘normal dispute’ between insurer and insured.”

Judge Pratter observes there was no dispute that (1) the policy provided $900,000 in benefits, as a result of the insured’s paying heightened premiums; and (2) the insured was not at fault in causing the accident. Further, the complaint alleges the insured suffered significant permanent injuries, will suffer $850,000 in lost earnings, and the cost of care damages alone were five times the insurer’s offer.

Judge Pratter, then states:

“Construing these allegations as true, as the Court must, [the insured’s] estimated damages are many orders of magnitude greater than [the insurer’s] offer. Taken together, the Complaint plausibly establishes a bona fide claim that [the insurer] lacked a reasonable basis to deny benefits.” She relies here on Judge Stengel’s 2017 Davis decision, summarized here, for the proposition that an unreasonably low settlement offer compared to value of lost wages and treatment cost can make out a plausible bad faith claim.

Judge Pratter added the complaint alleged “enough facts to plausibly infer that [the insurer] knew or recklessly disregarded a lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits.” “Chief among them is the delay between [the insured’s] initial demand and [the insurer’s] onetime offer.”

She cited Judge Stengel’s 2014 Padilla opinion, summarized here, for the point that “’[d]elay is a relevant factor in determining whether bad faith has occurred.’” The complaint alleges “a delay of nearly two years from the initial demand and over three years from the injury.” Moreover, the insurer failed to fulfil its alleged promise to finish its analysis and make an offer in May 2020, and failed to explain this “nonfeasance”.

Date of Decision:  April 15, 2021

Volgraf v. Garrison Property and Casualty Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 21-1394, 2021 WL 1427337 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 15, 2021) (Pratter, J.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red flags oblige the insurer to investigate thoroughly

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

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

Rule to file a complaint not bad faith

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

Date of Decision:  April 1, 2021

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

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.)

INSURER HAD STANDING AS ASSIGNEE TO BRING BAD FAITH CLAIM AGAINST ADDITIONAL INSURANCE PROVIDER; BAD FAITH CLAIM ADEQUATELY STATED FOR FAILURE TO PROVIDE FIRST LEVEL OF COVERAGE AND A DEFENSE UNDER ADDITIONAL INSURED ENDORSEMENT (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involves a dispute between a defendant’s own insurer and another carrier obligated to provide coverage to defendant as an additional insured.  The issues involved which insurer has the primary coverage/defense obligations, and which was excess.

There were several tenders to the additional insurance provider to assume the defense, which were either ignored or denied.  The defendant’s insurer brought a declaratory judgment action seeking to have the additional insurance provider assume the defense, and to reimburse the defendant’s insurer for attorney’s fees and costs, as well as for the attorney’s fees and costs associated with bringing the declaratory judgment action.

It is also clear from the court’s opinion that a statutory bad faith claim under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371 was at issue.

There was a motion to dismiss all claims.

There was a duty to defend the additional insured

Among other things, Eastern District Judge Robreno found the underlying complaint adequately alleged facts invoking the additional insurance provider’s duty of defend, when compared to the additional insured endorsement language.  Thus, the additional insurance provider was in error in failing to accept the tenders and assume the defense.

There was standing to bring a statutory bad faith claim as an assignee

The additional insurance provider challenged plaintiff’s standing to bring a section 8371 bad faith claim because it was not the named insured.  Judge Robreno disagreed, citing the Third Circuit’s 2015 Wolfe decision making clear that assignees can bring statutory bad faith claims.

[Note: Earlier in Wolfe, the Third Circuit certified to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court the fundamental issue of whether bad faith claims can ever be assigned. In the Supreme Court’s own Wolfe decision, assignments were recognized as permissible, but only within limited parameters.  A summary of that case can be found here. The assignment in the present case falls within those acceptable parameters.]

The assignee-insurer pleaded a plausible bad faith claim

Next, Judge Robreno rejected the insurer’s arguments that the complaint was devoid of facts setting out a plausible bad faith claim.

To the contrary, Judge Robreno found the following sufficient:

  1. The complaint alleged the additional insurance provider failed to acknowledge its primary duty to defend, without a reasonable basis, breaching the duty of good faith and fair dealing.

  2. The complaint specifically set out numerous instances where that insurer denied or ignored tender letters.

  3. “Accepting as true all of the allegations in the Complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and based on this record, [the plaintiff] has sufficiently pled that based on the correspondence submitted to [the insurer], [the additional insurance provider] did not adequately investigate, respond, or explain their refusal to defend and potentially indemnify [the insured] in the underlying action.”

The motion to dismiss was denied.

Date of Decision:  March 10, 2021

Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co. v. Harleysville Worcester Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-5093, 2021 WL 909625 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 10, 2021) (Robreno, J.)

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)