Archive for the 'PA – Damages' Category

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AFFIRMS TRIAL COURT’S BAD FAITH VERDICT, AND ITS REFUSAL TO AWARD PUNITIVE DAMAGES (Superior Court of Pennsylvania) (Non-precedential)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

SIMPLE VALUATION DISPUTE CANNOT CREATE BAD FAITH; NO ACTIONABLE BAD FAITH AGAINST CLAIM HANDLER; MIXED RESULT UNDER UTPCPL (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insured brought suit over a $500 valuation dispute.  The carrier valued the insured’s car at $2,500 ($3,000 less at $500 deductible), and repairs were estimated in excess of $3,000. The car being a total loss, the insurer offered $2,500, but the insured wanted $3,000.  This led to a 10 count complaint against the insurer and its claim handler. We only address the two bad faith counts against the insurer and/or the claim handler, and the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) claims against the insurer.

No statutory bad faith.

The court dismissed the statutory bad faith claim.  There were simply no allegations of fact that could support a plausible bad faith claim. The complaint itself showed the carrier appropriately investigated the claim, and gave a prompt damage assessment.  Plaintiff did not allege the repair cost estimate was incorrect, or the inspection faulty. There was no allegation that the insurer’s valuation was unreasonable. There was no claim denial, just a dispute over the sum due.

The court found this simply a “normal dispute” that did not amount to bad faith. “An insurer’s failure to honor its insured’s subjective value of his claim does not—without more—give rise to a bad faith claim.” The court, however, did allow leave to amend.

No common law bad faith against the insurer or the claim handler.

The insured brought common law bad faith claims against the insurer and claim handler. The court observed there is no tort common law bad faith cause of action; rather, in Pennsylvania common law bad faith is subsumed in the breach of contract claim. Thus, the common law claim against the insurer was dismissed with prejudice.

As to claim handler, Pennsylvania law (1) does not support a statutory bad faith claim against claim handlers; nor (2) does it recognize a bad faith claim in contract against adjusters (who are clearly not party to any contract). These claims were dismissed with prejudice.

A mixed result under the UTPCPL.

The court also dismissed one UTPCPL claim on the basis that it alleged poor claim handling, not deceptive inducement to enter the insurance contract.  However, the insured also alleged the carrier’s representative originally made false representations causing him to purchase the insurance in the first place.  This was sufficient to state a UTPCPL claim under its catch-all provision.

Date of Decision: December 14, 2020

Ke v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-1591, 2020 WL 7353892 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 14, 2020) (Pratter, J.)

If you want to get an overview on the law of removal and remand in bad faith cases, this is the case for you.

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Eastern District Judge Marston reviews three lines of U.S. Supreme Court and Third Circuit precedent in determining when, and whether, the burden of proof in establishing the jurisdictional minimum for removal purposes is “legal certainty” versus “preponderance of the evidence.”  She concludes that in cases where the insured specifically pleads compensatory damages are less than $50,000, a “legal certainty” test still applies until the Third Circuit says otherwise. This is so even if the plaintiff additionally demands punitive damages, attorney’s fees and super-interest under the bad faith statute.

In this context, a removing defendant’s allegation that punitive damages and attorneys’ fees could result in overall damages exceeding $75,000, fails to meet the legal certainty test.

[Comment: The upshot appears to be that if a plaintiff specifically alleges compensatory damages will not exceed $75,000 (typically not to exceed $50,000 in Pennsylvania state pleadings), even while additionally seeking statutory punitive damages and attorney’s fees, removal is not going to be possible.  Under Rule 11, the removing party would have difficulty averring to a certainty that punitive damages and attorney’s fees will be awarded to a legal certainty, and will use qualifying language such as “court be awarded” or “if awarded”.  Moreover, it is unlikely a defendant insurer will want to establish legal certainty by making a detailed argument against itself as to why it should be encumbered with punitive damages for its own reckless or intentional conduct.

Among the questions that arise: Why is a bad faith claim for punitive damages any less a legal certainty than a contested claim for compensatory damages? Put another way, doesn’t a contested claim for punitive damages or attorney’s fees have as much reality as a contested claim for compensatory damages?

Bad faith claims only allow for three types of damages: super-interest, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.  There is no statutory bad faith claim for compensatory or incidental damages. Thus, to even plead a bad faith claim meeting Rule 11 standards, the plaintiff must believe that punitive damages, attorney’s fees, or super-interest are warranted, as this is the only possible form of relief provided under section 8371.

Just as a plaintiff believes and pleads it is entitled to $49,312.25 in compensatory damages — and this number is treated as an undisputed fact for jurisdictional purposes even if a defendant insurer completely rejects that sum — so too must the plaintiff believe that it is entitled to punitive damages, attorney’s fees and/or super-interest in bringing the bad faith claim.  Yet this distinct damage claim, under a separate legal theory, may come to be treated as a nullity for purposes of calculating the jurisdictional minimum.

One possibility here could be the potential damages available under section 8371 are discretionary and not mandatory. Thus, it might be that the trier of fact may not award any of these damages at the end of the day, or may make a minimal award.  It also might be the case, however, that the trier of fact will find at the end of the day that the same plaintiff’s compensatory damage claim is meritless or only a fraction of the sum requested. Yet, that number as pleaded is treated as truth.]

The Facts of the Case

Plaintiffs brought breach of contract and bad faith claims in this water damage case.  Their contract claim’s ad damnum clause sought “judgment against Defendant in an amount not in excess of $50,000 together with interest and court costs.” In the bad faith count’s ad damnum clause, Plaintiffs requested “statutory damages including interest…, court costs, attorneys’ fees, punitive damages, and such other compensatory and/or consequential damages as are permitted by law.”

The carrier removed the case from Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas to federal court, and Plaintiffs moved to remand.  The District Court remanded.

The court observed “’[i]t is now settled in this Court that the party asserting federal jurisdiction in a removal case bears the burden of showing, at all stages of the litigation, that the case is properly before the federal court.’”  As set out above, the issue was whether the court should set the burden at “legal certainty” or “preponderance of the evidence.”  After doing a lengthy and detailed historical analysis of each strand of case law, the court concluded that, in a case such as this where the insured specifically pleaded the compensatory damage claims were less than $50,000, the “legal certainty” test applied.

The court observed it could aggregate the demands against a single defendant in determining jurisdiction. Further, punitive damages could be considered, so long as the estimates were realistic, with all doubts construed in favor of remand.  Such an analysis must be objective and not “pie-in-the-sky”.

The compensatory damages were a little over $24,000. The insurer argued that it was “not unreasonable to expect that a punitive damage award three or four times the amount in controversy, or beyond, could be rendered by the trier of fact.” It suggested, however, that the court should apply a 2-1 ratio ($48,000) and a measure of attorney’s fees at $30,000, as that “would not be unreasonable to expect that [fee sum] over the course of an approximate ten-month litigation…” This would place the claim at over $100,000, sufficient for jurisdiction.  The court rejected the argument.

The court looked at earlier case law finding such arguments failed to reach the level of “legal certainty.” In those cases, the qualifying language presented the fatal flaw, e.g., “claims for punitive damages and attorney fees, amongst other relief…could exceed $75,000.”; “it is ‘certainly possible for the damages to meet or exceed the jurisdictional limit of $75,000.’” A “suggestion of possible future events,” however, is not enough.

In one case relied upon to support remand, the compensatory damages were $11,000 and the punitive damages needed to be six times that amount to obtain jurisdiction. The court remanded for two reasons: (1) there was no certainty the plaintiff would “recover punitive damages at all, as she has not alleged any particular facts suggesting bad faith on the part of [the insurance company], other than her assertion that she was entitled to benefits but has not received them.”; (2) the carrier “supplied no basis for the Court to find that [the plaintiff] will recover the necessary amount of punitive damages.”

[Comment: This analysis implies a number of considerations, akin to the comment above. In determining remand, the court is looking to the merits of the plaintiff’s case in evaluating whether defendant met its burden.  The court basically determined on a motion to remand that the plaintiff’s bad faith claim, as pleaded, could not withstand a federal motion to dismiss.  The court then put the burden on the defendant to make the case against itself as to why punitive damages should be awarded against it.]

Judge Marston found the instant case akin to these earlier cases. In the present case, the carrier only alleged “that it is not ‘unreasonable’ to find that punitive damages ‘could’ amount to three or four times the amount in controversy, and that it would ‘not be unreasonable’ to find that attorney’s fees ‘could’ approach $30,000.This did not “satisfy [the defendant’s] burden by pointing to the mere possibility that the [insureds] ‘could’ be awarded punitive damages and attorney’s fees above the amount in controversy threshold.” “Moreover … [the insureds] are ‘not certain to recover punitive damages at all,’ because the complaint does not allege ‘any particular facts suggesting bad faith on the part of [the insurance company], other than [the] assertion that [they were] entitled to benefits but ha[ve] not received them.’”

The court held: “Without more, we cannot find that [the insurer] has carried its burden of showing to a legal certainty that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, and we must remand the case. However, if on remand, [the insurer] uncovers new evidence which shows that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, it may again seek removal to this Court.”

Date of Decision:  August 4, 2020

Sciarrino v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-2930-KSM, 2020 WL 4470611 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 4, 2020) (Marston, J.)

DENYING COVERAGE AFTER REPRESENTATIVES CONFIRMED COVERAGE IS BASIS FOR BAD FAITH (Western District)

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In this case, the insured made a water damage claim, as well as claims for roof damages. She hired a public adjuster to pursue the claims. The insured alleged her public adjuster met with the carrier’s adjuster, and the carrier’s adjuster authorized the insured to proceed with remediating the water damage. Five months later, the carrier sent out its own contractor to inspect the insured’s roof, and that contractor informed the public adjuster that the insured’s roof claims were covered.

The carrier subsequently denied all coverage and refused to pay on any claims. Once the insured retained counsel, however, the carrier agreed to pay part of the claim (for water damage).

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith, along with a variety of other claims. (The court allowed a negligent misrepresentation claim to stand against the carrier, rejecting the carrier’s gist of the action argument, on the basis that duties outside the contract were assumed and potentially violated.)

The carrier moved to dismiss the bad faith claim. It asserted that its contractor had no power to bind on coverage, and that it offered to pay the insured’s water damage losses after the insured retained counsel. The court rejected these arguments and allowed the bad faith claims to proceed.

The insured first pleaded coverage was due and her claim was denied. She then specifically alleged that two of the carrier’s representatives agreed coverage was due, establishing that the insurer was without a reasonable basis to deny coverage. This met the first bad faith element.

Next, as to proving the second element concerning the insurer’s intent, plaintiff had alleged the carrier’s two “representatives, upon reviewing [the] insurance claim and/or observing the Property, determined that the damage at issue was covered under the Policy. … These facts, if true, support a finding that [the insurer] knew or recklessly disregarded that it lacked a reasonable basis to deny [the] insurance claim, i.e. that [it] knew, through its representatives, that the damage at issue was covered under the Policy but still chose to deny benefits.”

Eventually offering to pay part of the insured’s claim did not eliminate potential bad faith, as the insured pleaded there was no reasonable basis to deny the entire claim.

The court did agree that the insured could not recover compensatory damages for unpaid insurance benefits under the bad faith statute, but this relief was available under other counts.

Date of Decision: June 3, 2020

Nelson v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania 2:19-cv-01382-RJC, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97239 (W.D. Pa. June 3, 2020) (Colville, 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.)

 

THIRD CIRCUIT FINDS: (1) EXPERT PROPERLY EXCLUDED FROM TESTIFYING ABOUT OTHER CASES; (2) REPORT NEVER PROVIDED TO INSURER DURING CLAIM HANDLING CANNOT BE CONSIDERED DURING BAD FAITH CASE; (3) INSURED WAS FULLY ABLE TO PRESENT CLAIM HANDLING EVIDENCE THROUGH HERSELF AND ADJUSTER; (4) USING HAND GESTURES IN JURY INSTRUCTION ON CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE NOT AN ERROR (Third Circuit – Pennsylvania Law)

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This is a post-verdict appeal after the jury found for the insurer in a UIM bad faith case. The insured challenged various pre-trial evidentiary rulings from the District Court Judge, and one of the judge’s jury instructions.

Before trial, the insurer moved to preclude plaintiff’s expert report and testimony, medical evidence that was not provided to the insurer during the UIM claim’s pendency, evidence of mental suffering and emotional distress, and evidence concerning non-recoverable damages. The insured also challenged the trial judge’s use of hand gestures during jury instructions to explain the clear and convincing evidence standard.

  1. Decision to Exclude Expert Upheld

The Third Circuit agreed there was no abuse of discretion by the trial judge in not holding a Daubert hearing. There was a sufficient record on the papers, making a hearing unnecessary. Further, the insured failed to explain how a hearing would have benefitted her or the court.

Next, the appellate court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision barring the expert’s testimony. Plaintiff wanted her expert to testify “for the very limited purpose of establishing a range of value for [her] underlying UIM claim.” However, this involved looking at other cases not before the court. The District Judge found that “’what other cases have paid is not relevant to this case, [and] what the value of this case is’ and [] the jury ‘will be instructed to use their common sense’ in compensating [the insured] should she prevail.”

The Third Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the District Court’s determination that the proposed expert testimony would not aid the jury, which had to rely on the facts in the case before it to determine bad faith.

  1. Medical Report Never Given to Insurer During Claim Handling Inadmissible

The insured wanted to introduce a medical report as evidence, addressing the extent of her injury and damages. However, she never provided that report to the insurer during the claim process. The Third Circuit found no abuse of discretion in the District Court excluding this evidence. “Because [the insurer] was not in possession of the report when it was evaluating [the] claim, it could not have considered the report’s findings when making its settlement offers. Therefore, the report had no relevance to the issue of whether [the insurer] acted in bad faith. Accordingly, we see no abuse of discretion in the District Court’s decision to exclude the report.”

  1. The Insured was Able to Present the Value of Her Case through Her Own Testimony and that of the Claim Adjuster

The insured argued the trial judge’s rulings prevented her from putting on a full case from which the jury could evaluate her claim. The Third Circuit found no abuse of discretion. Rather, the insured was able to put on her case directly through her own testimony, and to examine the claim adjuster at length on the relevant issues as to how the adjuster evaluated the claim.

  1. The District Judge’s Use of Hand Gestures to Explain the Clear and Convincing Evidence Standard was not an Error

The insured challenged the jury charge on the applicable burden of proof because the judge used “hand gestures demonstrating [the insured’s] burden in the ‘clear and convincing’ standard as a point midway between proof by preponderance of the evidence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Third Circuit found no plain error here that would merit relief for the insured.

“The District Court instructed the jury that clear and convincing evidence ‘means that the evidence is so clear, direct, substantial that you are convinced without hesitation that a fact is true.’ Language used by the District Court was substantially similar to language we have previously approved of. While [the insured] takes issue with the District Court’s use of ‘hand gestures’ during the jury charge, there is no reason to believe that those ‘hand gestures’ confused or in any way distracted the jury from the District Court’s correct instruction on clear and convincing evidence. Therefore, we find no error, much less plain error.”

In sum, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decisions.

Date of Decision: January 8, 2020

Antonio v. Progressive Insurance Co., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 19-1074, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 455 (3d Cir. Jan. 8, 2020) (Fuentes, Scirica, Shwartz, JJ.)

MERELY RECITING THE ELEMENTS OF A BAD FAITH CLAIM WITHOUT SUPPORTING FACTS MERITS DISMISSAL; COMPENSATORY, CONSEQUENTIAL, AND INCIDENTAL DAMAGES NOT RECOVERABLE UNDER BAD FAITH STATUTE (Western District)

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The insured and insurer disputed the amount of coverage due on a homeowner’s property loss claim. The insured brought breach of contract and bad faith claims. The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim for (1) inadequate pleading and (2) seeking damages not available under the bad faith statute.

The court observed, among other principles, that “[m]ere restatements of the elements of a claim are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Similarly, the “generic invocation of statutory language is insufficient to satisfy [the] federal pleading burden.” Further, a plaintiff fails to state a plausible basis for recovery under the bad faith statute if the complaint is devoid of facts describing the “who, what, where, when, and how the alleged bad faith conduct occurred.” The insured’s complaint failed the test.

The complaint only set out “boilerplate legal conclusions such as [the insurer] failed to pay [the insured], failed to objectively and fairly evaluate the Claim, unreasonably withheld Policy benefits, acted unreasonably and unfairly, and denied the Claim without justification or good faith basis to deny the Claim.” Thus, the court dismissed the bad faith claim for failing to plead a plausible claim. It relied on the following cases, summarized previously on this Blog: Mondron, Myers, and Plummer.

Still, the dismissal was without prejudice, and the insured was given leave to amend her complaint.

On the other hand, the court dismissed with prejudice the insured’s statutory bad faith claims for compensatory, consequential, and/or incidental damages. Such damages are only available in common law bad faith cases, not for statutory bad faith claims.

Date of Decision: December 31, 2019

Bick v. State Farm Fire & Casualty, U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:19-cv-00821-CRE, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 222775 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 31, 2019) (Reed Eddy, M.J.)

REASONABLENESS OF INVESTIGATION IS NOT SOLELY DETERMINED BY THE LENGTH OF TIME USED BY THE ADJUSTER TO REACH A CONCLUSION ON COVERAGE (Middle District)

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Through an unusual set of circumstances, the insureds’ electricity service at a vacation home was terminated by third parties, unbeknownst to the insureds. This led to the heating system’s not functioning, which in turn led to frozen pipes bursting, and significant water damage to their home. Their insurer denied coverage under a policy provision that required the insureds to take reasonable care in maintaining heat while the property was unoccupied, or in shutting down the water system.

The insureds brought claims for breach of contract, negligence, and bad faith. The negligence claim was dismissed under the gist of the action doctrine, as the claim was based on the breach of an insurance contract and any duties arose out of that contract. The breach of contract claim was dismissed as being initiated after the one-year contract period for bringing suit, expressly required in the insurance policy.

The court analyzed the bad faith came under both the common law and Pennsylvania’s Bad Faith Statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371. One difference between the two claims is that common law bad faith permits recovery of compensatory and consequential damages, while statutory bad faith is limited to interest, punitive damages, legal fees and costs.

In this case, the common law bad faith claim was time barred, being subject to the same analysis as the breach of contract claim.

The statutory bad faith claim was based upon an allegedly unreasonable failure to investigate the facts as to the history of the termination of the insureds’ electric service as the cause of the loss. The insureds argued that the adjuster’s single day visit to “the property was insufficient to ascertain the information necessary to determine the cause of the damage, particularly in light of the adjuster’s failure to contact [other relevant parties] to determine what events led to the transfer and termination of electric service at the [insureds’] Pennsylvania vacation home.” The court, however, granted the insurer summary judgment on this issue.

While the “adjuster may not have pursued an investigation into the ultimate cause of the property damage to the extent the [insureds] desired, a single, one-day visit to the home was sufficient for the adjuster to ascertain that the property was vacant for an extended period of time, that electric service to the home had been shut off for a period of months resulting in a failure to maintain heat inside the home over an extended period of time, and that the cause of property damage was a freeze out. This information, together with that gathered by claims handlers—including, in particular, the [insureds’] failure to note over the course of several months that they were no longer being billed for electric service—was sufficient … to reasonably determine that the [insureds] had failed to use reasonable care to maintain heat in the home while it was vacant for several months of winter weather. Stated another way, we find that, based on the evidence adduced by the parties on summary judgment, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, no reasonable jury could find that [the insurer’s] investigation was inadequate or that its denial of coverage was frivolous or unfounded.

Date of Decision: September 27, 2019

Pager v. Metro. Edison, U. S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:17-cv-00934, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 166052 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 27, 2019) (Saporito, M.J.)

(1) NOT ACCEDING TO INSURED’S DEMAND IS NOT BAD FAITH PER SE (2) THERE IS NO FIDUCIARY DUTY IN UIM CONTEXT AND (3) COMPENSATORY DAMAGES NOT AVAILABLE UNDER BAD FAITH STATUTE (Western District)

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In this UIM bad faith case, the court dismissed the bad faith count with leave to amend, struck all allegations referencing fiduciary duty, and dismissed the claim for compensatory damages under the Bad Faith Statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8371.

The insured was injured in a motor vehicle accident. The tortfeasor’s carrier paid his $25,000 policy limits. The insured sought additional recovery under the UIM provisions of his own policy.

The insured provided various medical records, economic reports, and other documents to the carrier, and ultimately demanded $250,000 in UIM policy limits. The insured’s carrier did not meet this demand, and the insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith, as well as loss of consortium for his wife.

The insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith count for failure to state a claim. It also moved to strike all averments concerning fiduciary duty, and to dismiss any claim for compensatory damages under the Bad Faith Statute.

The insured fails to plead a plausible bad faith claim

In reviewing the complaint, the court observed that while the list of 15 allegations in the bad faith count was long, it only pleaded “essentially conclusory acts and omissions,” which are insufficient to make out a plausible bad faith cause of action. These flawed allegations included:

a) “failing to objectively and fairly evaluate Plaintiffs’ claim”; b) “failing to objectively and fairly reevaluate Plaintiffs’ claim based on new information”; c) “engaging in dilatory and abusive claims handling”; d) “failing to adopt or implement reasonable standards in evaluating Plaintiffs’ claim”; e) “acting unreasonably and unfairly in response to Plaintiffs’ claim”; f) “not attempting in good faith to effectuate a fair, prompt, and equitable settlement of Plaintiffs’ claim in which the Defendant’s liability under the policy had become reasonably clear”; g) “subordinating the interests of its insured and those entitled under its insureds’ coverage to its own financial monetary interests”; h) “failing to promptly offer reasonable payment to the Plaintiffs”; i) “failing reasonably and adequately to investigate Plaintiffs’ claim”; j) “failing reasonably and adequately to evaluate or review the medical documentation in Defendant’s possession”; k) “violating the fiduciary duty owed to the Plaintiffs”; l) “acting unreasonably and unfairly by withholding underinsured motorist benefits justly due and owing to the Plaintiffs”; m) “failing to make an honest, intelligent, and objective settlement offer”; n) “causing Plaintiffs to expend money on the presentation of their claim”; and o) “causing the plaintiffs to bear the stress and anxiety associated with litigation.”

Beyond these conclusory allegations, the bad faith count was “devoid of facts explaining ‘who, what, where, when, and how’ Defendant failed to handle Plaintiffs’ UIM claim in good faith.”

The court did scour the complaint for facts. However, those facts did “not detail which of Defendant’s acts or omissions constitute bad faith, separately or in conjunction with others.” All those facts amounted to was that the insured was (1) injured in a motor vehicle accident, (2) the tortfeasor’s liability limit did not cover all of the insured’s injury claims, (3) the insured submitted his claim to his UIM carrier, and (4) the claim made has not been paid.

“While such facts might be sufficient to plead a claim for breach of contract, they are insufficient to support a claim of bad faith under the Pennsylvania statute. Simply put, requiring the Court to infer bad faith through Defendant’s ‘failure to immediately accede to a demand [under an insurance policy] cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.’”

Plaintiff’s citation to documents in his pleadings did not cure this problem. These documents simply show there may be some merit to the UIM claim, but do not show the “where, when and how” of a bad faith claim. These documents do not show how the denial was unreasonable or that that the allegedly unreasonable denial was knowing or reckless.

Again, the complaint simply amounted to an argument that bad faith should be inferred from the carrier’s refusing the insured’s demand. This is not enough.

There is no fiduciary duty in the UIM context

The court also struck all references in the complaint to breaches of fiduciary duty. The court rejected the notion that an insurer bears a fiduciary duty to the insured in all circumstances. Rather, while there may be a fiduciary duty in the context of third party claims against the insured, there is no such duty in first party claims, such as UIM claims.

Compensatory damages cannot be recovered under the Bad Faith Statute

Pennsylvania’s Bad Faith Statute only allows for recovery of punitive damages, interest, attorney’s fees, and costs. It essentially provides for additional remedies other than compensatory damages, which must be recovered under other theories, principally breach of contract.

Date of Decision: September 9, 2019

Ream v. Nationwide Property & Casualty Insurance Co., NAIC, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:19-cv-00768, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152870, 2019 WL 4254059 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 9, 2019) (Hornak, J.)

POTPOURRI OF ISSUES ADDRESSED IN RESPONSE TO 11 COUNT COMPLAINT: (1) REMAND (2) GIST OF THE ACTION/ECONOMIC LOSS (3) UIPA; (4) DUTY OF GOOD FAITH AND FAIR DEALING; (5) UNFAIR TRADE PRACTICES AND CONSUMER PROTECTION LAW (6) DECLARATORY JUDGMENT ACTIONS BY BREACH OF CONTRACT PLAINTIFFS AND (7) ADEQUATELY PLEADING BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this Opinion, Eastern District Judge Tucker addresses a wide range of fundamental legal issues in the context of ruling on a motion to dismiss the insured’s 11 count complaint. The complaint includes not only breach of contract and bad faith claims, but tort claims, UIPA claims, declaratory judgment claims, and injunctive relief claims, all arising out of the alleged failure to pay on an insurance claim. The court also addresses a motion to remand after removal.

We do not address all of the issues Judge Tucker discusses, but highlight a few of the key principles adduced in her opinion. Her full opinion can be found here.

  1. Motion to remand denied.  (i) In determining the jurisdictional minimum amount-in-controversy, the court may consider the possibility of punitive damages under the bad faith statute. (ii) Diversity of citizenship can be established by showing the defendant is not a citizen of plaintiff’s state, just as well as by affirmatively showing the state(s) in which defendant is a citizen.

  2. The gist of the action doctrine and/or the economic loss doctrine will typically bar tort claims based on violations of an insurance contract.

  3. Violating the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA) (i) does not create a private right of action, and (ii) some courts hold it may not be used to establish violation of statutory bad faith.

As the court states: “Plaintiff’s claim is also barred to the extent that it relies on an alleged violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Insurance Practices Act (‘UIPA’) because the UIPA does not permit private recovery for a violation of its provisions. Plaintiff advances a claim for damages based, in part, on a theory that [the insurer] was negligent having breached duties imposed upon it by the UIPA, 40 Pa Const. Stat. Ann. § 1171.1, et seq. ‘Courts within the Third Circuit and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania continue to recognize [, however,] that the UIPA does not provide plaintiffs with a private cause of action.’ Tippett, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37513, 2015 WL 1345442 at *2 (quoting Weinberg v. Nationwide Cas. and Ins. Co., 949 F. Supp. 2d 588, 598 (E.D. Pa. 2013)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, in Tippett, the district court not only rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to state a separate claim under the UIPA, but also rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that proof of a UIPA violation might otherwise provide support for the plaintiff’s independent bad faith claim. Id. Plaintiff’s claim under the UIPA in this case is similarly barred.”

  1. Breach of the common law duty of good faith and fair dealing is subsumed in the breach of contract claim.

  2. The Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law applies to the sale of insurance policies, not claims handling.

As the court states: “While Plaintiff rightly notes that the ‘UTPCPL creates a private right of action in persons upon whom unfair methods of competition and/or unfair or deceptive acts or practices are employed and who, as a result, sustain an ascertainable loss,’ … Plaintiff fails to note that ‘the UTPCPL applies to the sale of an insurance policy [but] does not apply to the handling of insurance claims.’” Thus, as the alleged “wrongful conduct under the UTPCPL relate[s] solely to [the insurer’s] actions after the execution of the homeowner’s insurance policy,” the UTPCPL claim was dismissed.

  1. Declaratory judgment count not permitted in light of breach of contract claim.

The court states: “Federal courts routinely dismiss actions seeking declaratory judgment that, if entered, would be duplicative of a judgment on an underlying breach of contract claim.” Judge Tucker cites case law for the propositions that “granting a defendant’s motion to dismiss a plaintiff’s independent cause of action for declaratory judgment because the claim for declaratory judgment was duplicative of an underlying breach of contract claim,” and “dismissing a plaintiff’s duplicative claim for declaratory judgment in the face of an underlying breach of insurance contract claim and observing that ‘pursuant to discretionary declaratory judgment authority, district courts have dismissed declaratory judgment claims at the motion to dismiss stage when they duplicate breach of contract claims within the same action.’”

  1. The insured pleads a plausible bad faith claim.

Judge Tucker highlighted the following allegations in ruling that the bad faith claim could proceed:

i the insurer “attempted to close her insurance claim despite never having sent an adjuster or inspector to evaluate the damage to the Property.”;

ii the insurer “engaged in intentional ‘telephone tag’ to delay and deny Plaintiff coverage under the homeowner’s insurance policy.”;

iii. the insurer never “scheduled an inspection of the Property or otherwise [took] any action to deny or grant coverage under the homeowner’s insurance policy.”

Thus, at the end of the day, after reviewing all of the claims and motion to remand, the insured was allowed to proceed on the breach of contract and bad faith claims.

Date of Decision: August 13, 2019

Neri v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-0355, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136820 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 13, 2019) (Tucker, J.)