Archive for the 'PA – Damages' Category

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.)

NO BAD FAITH WHERE INSURED FAILS TO PLEAD BREACH OF CONTRACT; INSURED CAN’T DICTATE MANNER OF INVESTIGATION (Western District)

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The insured suffered a fire loss and asserted the carrier’s actual cash value estimate was unreasonably low.  It brought breach of contract and bad faith claims.  The insurer moved to dismiss.

Breach of contract claim dismissed, without prejudice, for failing to allege damages

The court dismissed the breach of contract claim, without prejudice, because the insured failed to plead damages adequately.  The policy required, “as a condition of reporting a loss that ‘the insured … give immediate written notice to this company of any loss … showing in detail actual cash value and amount of loss claimed.’ … [The] Amended Complaint does not detail an actual cash value and amount of loss claimed. Therefore, without sufficient pleading as to the damage[]s element, [the insured] has not adequately pleaded a breach of contract claim.”

No bad faith in denying payment, or in the manner of investigation that is justified under express policy language

On the bad faith claim, the insured claimed the same unreasonably low valuation, and a bad faith investigation via “propounding unnecessary, burdensome, and overbroad document requests related to mutual funds, life insurance policies, five years of tax returns, and bankruptcy documents, which allegedly served no legitimate purpose in Defendants’ investigation of this commercial insurance claim.” In making these claims, however, the insured did “not account for the requirements under the Policy and [the pleadings merely] contain conclusory allegations.”

As to the document requests, the bad faith allegations were conclusory, “given that the allegations do not specify how the documents requested would not support the requirements of proof under the … Policy.”  The policy provided a specific and wide range of categories subject to investigation as a prerequisite to paying a loss.  In rejecting the insurer’s offer, the insured “placed the … valuation at issue and invited further investigation under the Policy, which could include some of the documentation requested by the Defendant. Defendants are placed in a position where they have a duty to conduct a thorough investigation; however, they are hamstrung by their insured’s unilateral determinations of what Defendant’s should be allowed to investigate.”

Analogizing this to inevitable discovery requests and objections should the claim be allowed to proceed, the court found the insured would not meet its burden in objecting to the same requests posed in discovery.  Thus, the allegations these document requests constitute bad faith were conclusory and inadequate.

Finally, the “claims that the Defendants’ determination of actual cash value was unreasonable are similarly conclusory, and [the insured] has provided neither a specific claim for damage nor an alternative valuation method. Thus, [the insured] has not adequately pleaded a statutory bad faith claim.”

Plaintiff was, however, given leave to amend.

Date of Decision:  March 4, 2021

Integral Scrap & Recycling, Inc. v. Conifer Holdings, Inc., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-00871-MJH, 2021 WL 826747 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 4, 2021) (Horan, J.)

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

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

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

Factual and procedural background

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

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

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

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

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

The arbitration award and the arbitrator’s doubts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Superior Court affirmed.

The “low ball” offer claim fails

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

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

The claim handling argument fails

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

The Superior Court will not play the role of advocate

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

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

Superior Court would not reverse trial court credibility determination on expert

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

Date of Decision:  February 26, 2021

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

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

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

Facts

This is another UIM bad faith case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arguments at trial

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

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

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

The trial court’s verdict

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

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

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

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

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

Damages

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

Bad faith legal standards where insurer delays in paying benefits due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facts supporting the bad faith verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date of Decision:  February 4, 2021

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

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.)