Archive for the 'PA – Delay (Payment)' Category

COURT ADDRESSES (1) COMMON LAW VS. STATUTORY BAD FAITH STANDARDS; (2) LACK OF CLARITY IN THE LAW AND BAD FAITH; (3) DELAYS IN CLAIM HANDLING AND SETTLEMENT OFFERS; (4) APPLYING THE UNFAIR INSURANCE PRACTICES ACT IN BAD FAITH CASES; (5) AGGRESSIVE DISCOVERY/CLAIM HANDLING DURING LITIGATION; and (6) LOW RANGE SETTLEMENT OFFERS (Philadelphia Federal)

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Eastern District Judge Tucker explains the similarities and differences between common law and statutory bad faith, in granting the insurer summary judgment on the statutory bad faith claim, but rejecting dismissal of the common law bad faith claims.  She observes both types of bad faith are subject to the clear and convincing evidence standard. However, common law bad faith only requires proof of negligent claim handling, while statutory bad faith requires a knowingly or recklessly unreasonable claim denial.

Judge Tucker cites Judge McLaughlin’s 2007 Dewalt case as authority on the negligence standard.  Judge Tucker does focus on the Cowden type of common law bad faith in discussing these standards, i.e., an insurer can avoid a common law bad faith claim for failure to settle within policy limits by showing “a bona fide belief … predicated on all the circumstances of the case, that it has a good possibility of winning the suit.”  This kind of third party insurance bad faith claim was not before the court.  Rather, the facts involved an underinsured motorist claim.

In an earlier decision, Judge Tucker entered judgment for the insurer on the basis the plaintiff did not qualify as an insured under the policy.  The Third Circuit reversed her decision.  While true the policy language did not provide the plaintiff UIM coverage, the Third Circuit found this limitation violated Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL).

On remand, the insured argued that the policy was issued in bad faith because it included language violating the MVFRL.  Judge Tucker rejected the common law bad faith claim on this point.  There was no precedent or binding authority on point before the Third Circuit’s decision, and the carrier’s position, while ultimately incorrect, was not unreasonable. “This matters because an insurer making a reasonable judgment as to coverage in a situation where the law is not clear cannot be liable for bad faith.”

This did not end the common law bad faith inquiry. Once the Third Circuit ruled, making the law applied to the policy crystal clear, this changed the measure of the insurer’s behavior, i.e., at that point the carrier knew it had an obligation to provide UIM coverage. In determining the common law bad faith claim, Judge Tucker stated:

  1. Conduct that postdates the start of litigation can form the basis for a proper bad faith claim.

  2. After the Third Circuit ruled that the Nationwide policy violated the MVFRL, Nationwide did not extend a settlement offer for ten months after the decision.

  3. When Nationwide did present an offer … it was for just $500,000 of the UIM benefits—in exchange for releasing the bad faith and class action claims.

  4. This offer was doubled a week later to $1 million, but it was contingent on a broader release of all disputes related to coverage.

  5. A failure to “promptly settle claims, where liability has become reasonably clear, under one portion of the insurance policy coverage in order to influence settlements under other portions of the insurance policy” is considered an unfair insurance practice under Pennsylvania law. 40 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 1171.5(a)(10)(xiii).

  6. The [UIPA] also singles out a refusal to “effectuate prompt, fair and equitable settlements of claims in which the company’s liability under the policy has become reasonably clear” as a similarly unfair insurance practice.

  7. While a violation of the Unfair Insurance Practice Act (UIPA) does not constitute a per se violation of the bad faith statute, it does point to a material fact that could support a common law bad faith claim. [Judge Tucker observes apparently contrasting case law on this point, quoting some cases to the effect that UIPA violations are not bad faith per se, and another that “the rules of statutory construction permit a trial court to consider … the alleged conduct constituting violations of the UIPA or the regulations in determining whether an insurer, like Nationwide, acted in ‘bad faith.”]

  8. Again citing Dewalt, Judge Tucker states: The fact that Nationwide offered a settlement is also not a safe harbor from a bad faith claim. “Although most Pennsylvania cases finding bad faith do so in situations where an insurer refuses to settle, no case suggests that such a refusal is a pre-requisite for a bad faith claim.”

  9. Judge Tucker concludes that: Given the resolution of the disputed terms in the Nationwide policy by the Third Circuit, Defendant’s refusal to provide an unconditioned settlement for a claim under those terms is enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find in favor of Plaintiff on the common law bad faith claim.

Thus, the common law bad faith was allowed to proceed. The statutory bad faith claim was not.

The pre-suit conduct, i.e., drafting the policy with a clause violating the MVFRL, certainly could not be bad faith under the higher statutory standards if it did not constitute negligence under the common law standard.  Plaintiff could not show by clear and convincing evidence that the policy language and the carrier’s conduct in following that language was objectively unreasonable at the time, much less in knowing or reckless disregard of some unreasonable conduct.

As to litigation conduct after the Third Circuit had ruled, the insurer pursued aggressive discovery.  [This discovery was essentially the insurer’s claim handling at this point.]  Judge Tucker laid out the details of the insurer’s discovery/claim handling and specific events over the course of discovery/claim handling.  This included the insurer’s making a number of reasonable requests for information and the insured’s creating delays.  The carrier’s zealous, and maybe at times questionable, defense tactics did not equate to bad faith.

Judge Tucker also observed that offers on the low end of a settlement range for subjective damages such as pain and suffering do not constitute clear and convincing evidence that the insurer’s action were unreasonable, knowing or reckless.  These sorts of claims require investigation, and the carrier’s discovery on these issues amounted to standard claim handling.

Judge Tucker next stated that the insurer’s 10 month delay in making a settlement offer, absent other aggravating factors, was “well under periods of time that have been deemed acceptable for statutory bad faith purposes.”

Judge Tucker also found it significant that the insurer “communicated with Plaintiff during discovery, sending multiple document requests and communicating with Plaintiff’s counsel, which is arguably more responsive than the amount of communication Defendant received in response. This too weighs against whether a reasonable jury could rule that Nationwide had knowing or reckless disregard for the deficiency of its position.”

Thus, summary judgment was denied on the statutory bad faith claim.

Date of Decision:  July 14, 2021

Slupski v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, U. S. District Court Eastern District Pennsylvania No. CV 18-3999, 2021 WL 2948829 (E.D. Pa. July 14, 2021) (Tucker, J.)

NO BAD FAITH CLAIM HANDLING OR DELAY IN UIM BAD FAITH CASE (C.C.P. Monroe)

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The excellent, and important, TortTalk blog has posted a summary of Monroe County Judge Williamson’s decision in Sabajo v. Allstate, granting summary judgment to the insurer on a UIM bad faith claim.  After reviewing the record, Judge Williamson could not find clear and convincing evidence of bad faith conduct in claim handling, or any delay that amounted to bad faith.  A copy of the opinion can be found here, Sabajo v. Allstate Fire and Casualty Insurance Co., Court of Common Pleas Monroe County, No. 7703 Civil 2019 (June 22, 2021) (Williamson, J.)

Our thanks to Attorney Daniel Cummins for bringing this case to our attention.

NO BAD FAITH BASED ON DELAY OR “LOW-BALL” OFFER; POLICY LIMIT IS NOT THE DE FACTO VALUE OF A CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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Eastern District Judge Pratter provides a clear discussion on allegations of delay and valuation that do not make out a bad faith claim.

This underinsured motorist coverage breach of contract and bad faith case focused on a dispute over whether the insured was entitled to stacked benefits.  The insured had waived stacking, but asserted that the insurer’s failure to send new waiver forms when she added additional vehicles negated that waiver.  She pleaded serious personal injuries, and that the insurer only offered $4,500 on the claim.

First, Judge Pratter found the insured failed to plead a plausible claim for bad faith delay.  “Although this complaint alleges the accident took place in January 2020, it does not allege when [the insured] noticed her intent to seek UIM coverage or when [the insurer] transmitted its offer. So, the complaint fails to plead the length of the alleged delay, let alone whether it was unreasonable.”

There were no allegations the insured made a timely demand or that the insurer failed to investigate or conducted an unreasonable investigation. At best, the insured’s argument was that the insured offered $4,500, and when compared to her alleged injuries, this was facially unreasonable.  Judge Pratter did not accept this argument, observing that “the pleadings must provide sufficient allegations from which the Court can plausibly infer that [the insurer] knew or recklessly disregarded a lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits.”

The complaint revealed “a “’normal dispute between an insured and insurer over the value of a UIM claim’ which is itself predicated on a dispute over [the insured’s] entitlement to stacked coverage limits.” Judge Pratter describes the coverage disagreement as a “live dispute that motivates both the declaratory judgment and breach of contract claims. An insurer’s refusal to pay the policy limit when it disputes that the insured is entitled to any such coverage at all is not evidence of unreasonable conduct that would support a bad faith claim.”

Finally, on bad faith, Judge Patter states that a “low-ball” offer by itself is not necessarily bad faith.  “The complaint contains no allegations that [the insured] submitted documentation of the extent of her injuries to support her position such that she is entitled to the policy limit. A policy limit is just that—the ultimate maximum that an insured could theoretically recover. It is not the de facto value of a claim.”

Judge Pratter did give leave to amend the bad faith claim, but only if the insured could plead within the parameters set out in the Court’s opinion.

Date of Decision:  June 7, 2021

Brown v. LM General Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 21-2134, 2021 WL 2333626 (E.D. Pa. June 7, 2021) (Pratter, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM PREMATURE IN LIGHT OF ONGOING APPRAISAL PROCESS; UTPCPL DOES NOT APPLY TO CLAIM HANDLING (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involves a first party fire loss to the insured’s home.  The insured’s public adjuster estimated damages at over $300,000. The insurer’s adjuster issued a number of reports that consecutively lowered the damage estimate. The final report was less than a ¼ of the plaintiff’s estimate. These differences resulted in the carrier invoking the appraisal process, which was pending at the time this suit was filed.

The insured sued the insurer for breach of contract, bad faith, fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud and violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL).  The last three claims also were made against the carrier’s independent adjuster.

The court dismissed the breach of contract claim because the matter was subject to the ongoing appraisal process.  Judge Padova observed that while there is some right of appeal from the completed appraisal process, the scope of appeal is limited.  Dismissal was without prejudice to pursue those limited appellate rights after the appraisal process ended.  Judge Padova rejected the insured’s argument that this was actually a coverage dispute, rather than a valuation dispute.

Next, Judge Padova stayed the bad faith claim as premature. Because the appraisal process was ongoing, the carrier had never actually denied the claim.  Judge Padova did appear to recognize, however, the insured had pleaded a potential bad faith claim. This was based on allegations concerning the insurer’s involvement in the various decreasing loss estimates, which it allegedly knew were incorrect.

The fraud and UTPCPL claims failed to allege justifiable reliance, and were dismissed.

In addition, as to the UTPCPL claims, Judge Padova states:

Moreover, we note that recent Pennsylvania caselaw has stated that “[t]he UTPCPL applies to consumer transactions, which are statutorily defined[, and] the handling of an insurance claim does not meet the statutory definition.” … Under this authority, “[t]he UTPCPL applies to the sale of an insurance policy, it does not apply to the handling of insurance claims,” and the bad faith statute, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8371, “provides the exclusive statutory remedy applicable to claims handling.” … Accordingly, for this reason as well, we conclude that Plaintiff’s UTPCPL claim, which is grounded on deceptive conduct in the handling of her insurance claim, cannot state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Date of Decision:  June 1, 2021

Bussie v. American Security Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-3519, 2021 WL 2206282 (E.D. Pa. June 1, 2021) (Padova, J.)

“LEGAL THEORIES ALONE ARE NOT ENOUGH TO SUSTAIN LITIGATION. A PLAINTIFF MUST ALSO PLEAD FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS TO SUPPORT HIS LEGAL THEORIES.”

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Legal theories alone are not enough to sustain litigation. A plaintiff must also plead factual allegations to support his legal theories.

The Honorable Joshua D. Wolson, May 6, 2021

In this breach of contract and bad faith case, Eastern District Judge Wolson dismissed all claims.

As to the alleged breach of contract, the insured made conclusory allegations about failures to pay sums due. He did not plead any facts as to what sums were due that the insurer failed to pay, or what provisions in the insurance contract were breached.  Further, he admitted that certain sums asserted as allegedly due were paid.

Finally, even when payment is delayed, there is still payment.  The delay does not create a breach of the insurance agreement when payment is eventually made.  Thus, delay is really an issue of bad faith, not breach of contract.

Moving on to the bad fad faith claim, the insured argued that the delayed payment, “in and of itself” established bad faith.  Judge Wolson disagreed, observing that “a delay in payment is not a per se violation of 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8371. Although an unreasonable delay can be considered a bad faith insurance practice under the statute, ‘a long period of delay between demand and settlement does not, on its own, necessarily constitute bad faith.’”

Rather, a plaintiff alleging delay based bad faith “must plead facts sufficient to demonstrate that (1) the defendant had no reasonable basis for the actions it undertook, which resulted in the delay, and (2) that the defendant knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that it had no reasonable basis to deny payment. … If the delay is attributable to a need for further investigation or even to simple negligence, there is no bad faith.”

Judge Wolson found nothing in the complaint suggesting the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded the lack of a reasonable basis to delay payment. “On the contrary, according to the Complaint, after [the insured] filed suit, ‘the matter was looked at with greater scrutiny,’ and [the insurer] sent him an additional check … eight to nine months after denying him additional benefits.”

Judge Wolson observed that, taken as true, the Complaint asserts facts that might show negligence. However, the plaintiff did not “attribute this delay to [the insurer’s] knowledge or recklessness that it had no basis for the delay.” The court could not “infer recklessness based only on a nine-month delay of an additional payment.”

Interestingly, while Judge Wolson would not grant leave to file a new amended complaint, he did grant plaintiff an opportunity to correct deficiencies in the existing complaint.

Date of Decision: May 6, 2021

Elansari v. The First Liberty Insurance Corporation, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. 2:20-CV-5901-JDW, 2021 WL 1814980 (E.D. Pa. May 6, 2021) (Wolson, J.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Pratter, then states:

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

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

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

Date of Decision:  April 15, 2021

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

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)

INSURED ADEQUATELY PLEADED UNREASONABLE DENIAL/DELAY, BUT NOT KNOWLEDGE OR RECKLESS DISREGARD; UIPA/UCSP NOT BASIS FOR BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insurer successfully moved to dismiss a UIM bad faith claim. While the plaintiff pleaded sufficient facts to show the insurer’s conduct was unreasonable, plaintiff failed to sufficiently plead that the insurer’s conduct was knowing or reckless.

Factual Background

The complaint alleged that after settling with the tortfeasor, the insured demanded UIM policy limits from her own carrier. The demand was in writing, accompanied by medical documents, and requested a response in 30 days. There was no response in 30 days, and the insured sent another demand on the 32nd day, and again a month after that.  The carrier’s adjuster responded to the third demand, on the day it was sent, that the carrier did not agree with plaintiff’s valuation of her injuries. On that same day, the insured also requested a copy of the policy, which the carrier initially refused to provide, but eventually sent almost six weeks later. The Insured made more requests for documents she alleges were relevant, but received no response.

She pleads she was never provided “with (1) a written explanation for the delay in investigating her UIM claim, (2) any indication of when a decision on the claim might be reached, or (3) any written explanation on the status of her claim.” Instead, over six months after her original demand, the insurer made a written demand to arbitrate the UIM claim.

Thus, the only two communications in the six-month period were to dispute valuation and demand arbitration.

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith. The carrier moved to arbitrate the UIM claim, and to dismiss the bad faith claim. The court granted the motion to arbitrate, and stayed the insured’s coverage claim pending arbitration.  It dismissed the bad faith claim.

Alleged Bases for Bad Faith

The insured alleged seven bases for her bad faith claim:

  1. “failing to promptly and reasonably determine the applicability of benefits;”

  2. “failing to pay benefits or settle her UIM claim;”

  3. “unreasonably delaying payment;”

  4. “failing to provide a copy of the … Policy when requested;”

  5. “failing to respond to multiple attempts at communication;”

  6. “unreasonably delaying evaluation of her claim;” and

  7. “violating the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (“UIPA”), 40 P.S. § 1171.1 et seq., and the Unfair Claims Settlement Practice (“UCSP”) Guidelines, 31 Pa. Code § 146.1 et seq., by failing to complete claim investigation within thirty days or, if unreasonable, to provide a written explanation and an expected date of completion every forty-five days thereafter.”

Bad Faith Standards and First Element of Bad Faith

The court observed two factors are needed to prove bad faith, as approved in Rancosky: the insured must show “(1) 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.” Judge Quiñones Alejandro stated that the first element covers a range of insurer conduct, such as “an insurer’s lack of good faith investigation or failure to communicate with the claimant regarding UIM claims[, … or] where the insurer delayed in handling the insured’s claim.”

The insured pleaded enough to support a plausible claim for unreasonable conduct in denying the claim. She “alleged that during the nearly six months between Plaintiff initially filing her UIM claim and [the insurer] making a written arbitration demand, Plaintiff’s counsel attempted to communicate … on at least five separate occasions for any update on the status of Plaintiff’s claim.” The insurer only responded once to dispute valuation and then three months later to demand arbitration.  This was enough to make out a claim for “unreasonable delay to investigate and settle Plaintiff’s claim.”

Second Element of Bad Faith Not Met

Proving knowledge or reckless disregard goes beyond mere negligence or poor judgment. Pleading “the mere existence of the delay itself is insufficient.” “Rather, a court must look to facts from which it can infer the defendant insurer ‘knew it had no reason to deny a claim; if [the] delay is attributable to the need to investigate further or even simple negligence, no bad faith has occurred.’” “In cases involving delay or failure to investigate or communicate, courts have found the length of the delay relevant to an inference of knowledge or reckless disregard.” Judge Quiñones Alejandro cited examples of cases with more than one and two year investigation delays.

She went on to find the insured did not plead a plausible claim of knowing or reckless disregard in denying or delaying payment. “In bad faith cases premised on an insurer’s delay and failure to communicate, courts have generally only inferred plausible knowledge or reckless disregard where the time periods of delay were much longer than six months.” She cites the Superior Court’s Grossi decision (one year delay), and Judge Leeson’s January 2020 Solano-Sanchez decision (two year delay) as other examples.

By contrast, “[h]ere, the time lapse before [the insurer] acted on Plaintiff’s claim by seeking arbitration was roughly six months. Further, nothing in Plaintiff’s complaint attributes this time period to [the insurer’s knowledge or reckless disregard of a reasonable basis for denying (or delaying) the claim, as opposed to ‘mere negligence’ or even an actual need to investigate. Without a longer delay more consistent with the delays established in the aforementioned precedent, or other factual allegations from which this Court could infer that Travelers acted with knowledge or reckless disregard of the unreasonableness of its actions, Plaintiff has not pled facts sufficient to plausibly allege the second element of her bad faith claim. Therefore, Plaintiff’s bad faith claim is dismissed.”

UIPA or UCSP Violations Cannot Form Basis for Bad Faith Claims

In addressing the bad faith claims, the Court observed, “alleged violations of the UIPA or UCSP cannot per se establish bad faith and have not been considered by Third Circuit courts.” Judge Quiñones Alejandro cites the Third Circuit’s decisions in Leach (“holding that ‘insofar as [plaintiff’s] claim for bad faith was based upon an alleged violation of the UIPA, it failed as a matter of law.’”), and Dinner v. U.S. Auto. Ass’n Cas. Ins. Co., 29 F. App’x 823, 827 (3d Cir. 2002) (holding that alleged UIPA or UCSP violations are not relevant in evaluating bad faith claims), as well as the Eastern District decision in Watson (“observing that, since the current bad faith standard was established in Terletsky, ‘courts in the [Third] circuit have … refused to consider UIPA violations as evidence of bad faith.’).”

Date of Decision: December 7, 2020

White v. Travelers Ins. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-2928, 2020 WL 7181217 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 7, 2020) (Quiñones Alejandro, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM IS RIPE TO PROCEED; COURT REJECTS MOTION TO BIFURCATE OR SEVER (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this underinsured motorist bad faith case, Eastern District Judge DuBois denied both a motion to dismiss on ripeness grounds, and an alternative motion to server or bifurcate.

The complaint alleges the tortfeasor had $50,000 in coverage and the plaintiff/insured had $500,000 in UIM coverage. The tortfeasor agreed to settle at $47,000 and the UIM carrier consented. Plaintiffs alleged severe and permanent injuries and pursued a UIM claim.

Specifically, the insureds allege they complied with all policy terms and conditions; the insurer did not tender any UIM benefits or make any settlement offers; the insurer did not conduct any investigation into the claims; and the insurer played “cat and mouse” games by “continuously and systematically failing to communicate any offer of settlement or denial of benefits,” misleading plaintiffs as to potential settlement on at least nine occasions, and “purposefully ignoring [plaintiffs’] demand for underinsured motorist benefits.”

BAD FAITH CLAIM CAN PROCEED

First, Judge DuBois rejected the argument that the bad faith claim was not ripe until the breach of contract claim was actually decided. Among other things, the court stated: “Success on a statutory claim for bad faith does not necessarily depend on the success of the underlying breach of contract claim.” Relying on a 1996 Eastern District decision, the court quotes: “A claim for bad faith brought pursuant to § 8371 is a separate and distinct cause of action and is not contingent on the resolution of the underlying contract claim. A plaintiff may succeed on its bad faith claim even if it fails on the underlying breach of contract claim. Additionally, courts interpreting § 8371 have consistently entertained multi-count complaints containing both unresolved insurance contract disputes and bad faith claims.”

The court further relies on the unpublished Third Circuit decision, Gallatin Fuels, Inc. v. Westchester Fire Insurance Co., in reasoning that “’[a] finding that the insured did not ultimately have a duty to cover the plaintiff’s claim does not per se make the insured’s actions reasonable’ in hindsight.” Judge DuBois concludes: “Therefore, so long as the underlying contract claim is ripe, the bad faith claim is also ripe.”

After finding the claim ripe, the court finds plaintiffs can proceed on their bad faith claim. “Plaintiffs allege defendant acted in bad faith by failing to properly investigate their insurance claim, engage in settlement discussions, and communicate with them. This is ‘a separate and distinct’ cause of action from plaintiff’s claim that defendant breached the terms of the policy in failing to pay UIM benefits. … As such, a finding that defendant does not owe plaintiffs UIM benefits would not mandate a finding that defendant did not act in bad faith in handling the insurance claim.”

[Note: This opinion does not address the impact of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in determining to what extend a statutory bad faith claim can proceed, if at all, when there is no duty to pay any benefits under the policy. Moreover, we have previously observed that Gallatin Fuels never addressed Toy. These issues have been discussed many times on the Blog, most recently here.

Of special note is Judge DuBois’ 2019 decision in Buck v. GEICO, which appears to emphasize, and confirm, the denial of a benefit as a predicate to statutory bad faith claims. Among other things, the Buck opinion looks to Toy as a leading authority, and not Gallatin Fuels. The Buck opinion includes language, in quotes below, stating:

“Even assuming that the bad faith denial of the benefits claimed by plaintiff was properly alleged in the Complaint, plaintiff’s argument fails because plaintiff does not allege the denial of any benefits within the meaning of the statute. ‘[B]ad faith’ as it concern[s] allegations made by an insured against his insurer ha[s] acquired a particular meaning in the law.’”

“Courts in Pennsylvania and the Third Circuit have consistently held that ‘[a] plaintiff bringing a claim under [§ 8371] must demonstrate that an insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured through ‘any frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay proceeds of a policy.’”

The Buck plaintiff could not state a claim because “[n]one of the ‘benefits’ that defendant allegedly denied plaintiff concern the refusal to pay proceeds under an insurance policy. To the contrary, plaintiff concedes that he ‘does not allege bad faith for refusal to pay benefits.’”

Buck observes that cases have held “’section 8371 is not restricted to an insurer’s bad faith in denying a claim. An action for bad faith may also extend to the insurer’s investigative practices.’” This means, however, that bad faith claims “’need not be limited to the literal act of denying a claim.’”

Rather, “the essence of a bad faith claim must be the unreasonable and intentional (or reckless) denial of benefits.” “Thus, plaintiff must allege the denial of benefits to state a claim under § 8371.”]

In the present case, there seems to be no question that UIM coverage is provided, but only whether the plaintiff’s damages reach into the UIM coverage level or stop below $50,000. The insurer does not appear to challenge whether a plausible bad faith claim has been pleaded with adequate factual allegations, but only that the bad faith claim should not be allowed to proceed because it is not ripe. The court concludes that the UIM bad faith claim is ripe and can proceed.

MOTION TO BIFURCATE OR SEVER DENIED

The Procedures and Standards Governing Contract and Bad Faith Claims do not Favor Bifurcation or Severance.

Judge Dubois first rejected the argument that the claims should be severed or bifurcated because they will be governed by different procedures and standards. First, the carrier incorrectly argued that the contract and loss of consortium claims go to a jury while bad faith is decided by the judge. While true in Pennsylvania state court actions, bad faith claims can go to the jury in federal court cases. Next the court rejected the notion that the jury would be confused in applying the preponderance of the evidence standard to the contract claim and clear and convincing evidence standard to the bad faith claim. Judge Dubois also rejected the argument that the facts at issue on the two claims were entirely distinct.

“For example, one of plaintiffs’ assertions in the bad faith claim is that defendant failed to conduct an adequate investigation into plaintiffs’ injuries. This requires inquiry into two facts (1) the extent of plaintiffs’ injuries, and (2) the extent of defendant’s investigation into those injuries. The breach of contract claim also requires inquiry into the extent of plaintiffs’ injuries. A separate trial on the bad faith claim would require plaintiffs to present much of the same evidence to the second jury, ‘duplicating in many respects the presentation to the first jury.’ This would be expensive and time-consuming for all parties. Because of the factual overlap between the claims, it would be more convenient to have a single trial in this case. Accordingly, the convenience factor weighs against severance or bifurcation.”

There is no Prejudice Because the Work Product Doctrine Remains Functional.

As to prejudice, the insurer focused on protecting work product. Judge Dubois states: “On this factor, defendant contends that allowing discovery and trial for the claims to proceed simultaneously would prejudice defendant because discovery in the bad faith claim would require defendant to disclose the claim adjustor’s mental impressions, conclusions, and opinions as to the merits of the case, evidence that is not discoverable in the breach of contract case. … To the extent that the claim adjustor’s work product is protected, defendant’s argument is unconvincing.”

Judge Dubois joins the vast majority of opinions finding the attorney client privilege and work product doctrine do not fall by the wayside simply because an insured brings a bad faith claim: “The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and longstanding judicial precedent protect work product from disclosure—protections that do not disappear merely because work product prepared in anticipation of litigation over one claim may also be relevant to a second claim. Allowing the claims to proceed simultaneously simply means [defendant] will be called upon to prove its entitlement to work product protection….”

Judicial Economy Favors a Single Action

As to judicial economy:

“Defendant’s argument as to this factor is that, should plaintiffs fail on their breach of contract claim, the bad faith claim will be moot. As explained above, that is an incorrect statement of the law. Plaintiffs’ bad faith claim is based, in part, on defendant’s failure to investigate plaintiff’s insurance claims and communicate with plaintiffs regarding their claims. ‘A finding that the [insurer] did not ultimately have a duty to cover the plaintiff’s claim does not per se make the [insurer’s] actions reasonable’ in hindsight. Gallatin Fuels, Inc., 244 F. App’x at 434-35. Whether defendant ultimately owes plaintiff benefits under the policy is distinct from whether defendant appropriately handled the claims.” [See Note above re Toy v. Metropolitan and Buck v. GEICO.]

“To the contrary, a single trial promotes judicial economy because it avoids duplication of effort by the parties across multiple trials. Although the contractual and bad faith claims present distinct legal issues, the underlying facts overlap. Therefore, “[b]ifurcation would essentially double the life of this action requiring a second discovery period, more dispositive motions, more pretrial motions, and a completely separate trial,” much of which would concern the same factual basis. … Accordingly, the judicial economy factor weighs against severance or bifurcation.”

Date of Decision: September 11, 2020

Dunleavy v. Encompass Home & Auto Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-1030, 2020 WL 5501200 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 11, 2020) (DuBois, J.)

PENNSYLVANIA SUPERIOR COURT ADDRESSES CONCLUSORY BAD FAITH ALLEGATIONS IN SUMMARY JUDGMENT CONTEXT (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (Not Precedential)

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We do not often see Pennsylvania’s state courts addressing “conclusory” allegations in bad faith cases. In this case, the Superior Court makes clear that conclusory assertions cannot forestall summary judgment on a bad faith claim.

The employee plaintiffs/insureds demanded underinsured motorist coverage under the employer’s policy.  They asserted that there were $1,000,000 in UIM limits. The carrier countered that the employer had selected and signed off on a $35,000 UIM coverage limit, and the insurer ultimately paid the $35,000.  The trial court agreed with the carrier on the facts of record that coverage was only $35,000, and granted summary judgment on the breach of contract claim. The Superior Court affirmed, finding the employer’s UIM sign-down enforceable and effective.

As to the bad faith claim, the trial court found “there can be no dispute that [the insurer] had a reasonable basis for denying the … claim for coverage beyond $35,000, as we have already determined the trial court did not err in concluding that the UIM policy limit was $35,000.” The panel then looked at the bad faith claim based upon the insurer’s timeliness in dealing with the claim. This appears to be an argument there was a bad faith delay in paying the $35,000 admittedly due.

The insureds argued the insurer failed “to promptly offer any payment,” engaged “in dilatory and abusive claims handling,” acted “unreasonably and unfairly by withholding underinsured motorists benefits justly due and owing,” subordinated “the interests of its insured and those entitled under its insured’s coverage to its own financial monetary interest,” and caused the insured to spend money in bringing their claims.

The Superior Court again affirmed the trial court’s granting the insurer summary judgment, favorably citing the trial court’s reasoning.

First, the trial court rejected the insureds’ Nanty-Glo argument. Further, the insureds “provided no evidence to support their Bad Faith claim beyond conclusory assertions.” The record showed the insureds made a $900,000 demand on what the insurer (correctly) believed was a $35,000 policy.  The record also revealed the insurer was attempting to get information from the insureds to resolve the claim, and that the carrier tendered the $35,000 limit multiple times, which offers were refused or ignored.

The Superior Court favorably quoted the trial court on how to address conclusory bad faith allegations in responding to a summary judgment motion. The trial court had relied on Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent in reaching its conclusion:

“Allowing non-moving parties to avoid summary judgment where they have no evidence to support an issue on which they bear the burden of proof runs contrary to the spirit of [Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure] 1035. We have stated that the mission of the summary judgment procedure is to pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for a trial. We have a summary judgment rule in this Commonwealth in order to dispense with a trial of a case (or, in some matters, issues in a case) where the party lacks the beginnings of evidence to establish or contest a material issue…. Forcing parties to go to trial on a meritless claim under the guise of effectuating the summary judgment rule is a perversion of that rule. [Emphasis added]

Thus, we hold that a non-moving party must adduce sufficient evidence on an issue essential to his case and on which he bears the burden of proof such that a jury could return a verdict in his favor.”

In this case, the Superior Court found that plaintiffs’ “lacked ‘the beginnings of evidence’ concerning how [the insurer] engaged in dilatory and abusive claims handling, and subordinated the interests of its insured and those entitled under its insured’s coverage to its own financial monetary interest.”  The insureds failed to adduce sufficient evidence of record concerning delays, or evidence that any delay in tendering settlement was unreasonable or done with knowing or reckless disregard that the delay was unreasonable.

The underlying dispute over whether coverage was $1,000,000 or $35,000, and the insureds insistence on pursuing large six figure demands, contributed to the circumstances of any delays.

Date of Decision:  September 11, 2020

Beach v. The Navigators Insurance Company, Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 1550 MDA 2019, 2020 WL 5494530 (Pa. Super. Ct. Sept. 11, 2020) (Musmanno, Panella, Stabile, JJ.)