Archive for the 'PA – Estimates, Valuation or Appraisal' Category

“EXPECTING AN INSURER TO BOTH INVESTIGATE CLAIMS PLACED AT ISSUE BY THE INSURED AND TO DO SO ONLY IN A MANNER THAT IS ACCEPTABLE TO THE INSURED, IS UNTENABLE” (Western District)

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Western District Judge Horan previously dismissed breach of contract and bad faith claims in this case, with leave to amend.  A copy of our earlier summary can be found here.  The insured cured the defects in its contract claim, but once again failed to set out a plausible bad faith claim.  This time, however, Judge Horan dismissed the bad faith claim with prejudice, as any future attempt to amend would be futile.

The claim centered on a dispute over actual cash value losses for damaged equipment, and documents the insurer requested as part of an examination under oath (EUO). The insured failed to produce those documents, deeming them irrelevant, and the insurer would not proceed without those documents.

The complaint pleads that the carrier’s actual cash value calculation was fundamentally flawed, and that the carrier sought documents for the EUO that had nothing to do with coverage.

Judge Horan carefully reviewed the second amended complaint, finding plaintiff still failed to state a statutory bad faith claim for the same reasons set forth in her original March 4, 2021 opinion. Rather than overcoming the bad faith claim’s flaws, the new allegations in the second amended complaint “regarding Defendants’ pre-litigation investigation and document requests further buttress[ed] the Court’s prior decision.”

Judge Horan states:

“Defendants undertook an investigation upon the initial loss of the [damaged equipment] and made an offer. [The insured] rejected that offer and made its own claim of value for payment. … In response, Defendants continued the investigation by seeking documents and an examination under oath, as permitted by the Policy. Such conduct is not bad faith.”

Further, in once again rejecting the insured’s complaint over the document requests’ relevance, Judge Horan reiterates that “[e]xpecting an insurer to both investigate claims placed at issue by the insured and to do so only in a manner that is acceptable to the insured, is untenable.”

“Finally, as to the remaining allegations, they speak to a general disagreement over Defendants’ estimate of … damages. The Second Amended Complaint continues to support that an offer was made and that further effort at investigation was attempted by Defendants. These allegations of valuation and investigation disagreements do not support that Defendants engaged in bad faith.”

Date of Decision: April 30, 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 1720713 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 30, 2021) (Horan, J.)

NO BAD FAITH CLAIM STATED WHERE ONLY ALLEGATION IS THAT INSURER FAILED TO EXPLAIN ITS VALUATION IN OFFERING CLAIM PAYMENT BELOW POLICY LIMITS (Western District)

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The insureds valued their UIM claim at $215,000, and settled with the tortfeasor’s insurer for $15,000.  They demanded $200,000 policy limits from the UIM carrier, and transmitted a police report and medical records in support of their demand.  The insurer offered $15,000 in response, and the insureds sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The insurer successfully moved to dismiss the bad faith claim, but the insured was given leave to amend.

Western District Judge Horan found the insureds’ complaint failed to “provide any factual support regarding their bad faith claim, other than their allegations that [the] offer of $15,000 failed to cite any reasons for such offer. The [insureds] did not cite any other facts to support their allegation that [the insurer] acted in bad faith. These bare factual assertions, without more, do not state a plausible claim for which relief can be granted.”

Date of Decision: April 20, 2021

Long v. USAA Casualty Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-2017, 2021 WL 1550094 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 20, 2021) (Horan, J.)

 

POLICY VOIDED FOR MATERIAL MISREPRESENTATIONS; INSURED VIOLATED INSURANCE FRAUD ACT; COMMON LAW FRAUD NOT ACTIONABLE ABSENT RELIANCE (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insured admittedly altered vendor invoices that inflated the replacement value of damaged items in this first party property damage claim, and submitted those false invoices to the insurer in making its claim for property damage losses.

The insurer brought a declaratory judgment action arguing there was no coverage due because of these misrepresentations, along with claims for “violations of Pennsylvania’s Insurance Fraud Act, common law fraud, and reverse bad faith.” The insured brought a statutory bad faith counterclaim, which the court earlier dismissed.

The parties cross-moved for summary judgment, and the insured asked Eastern District Judge Robreno to vacate his dismissal of its bad faith counterclaim.  Judge Robreno granted summary judgment to the insurer for declaratory relief and violation of the Insurance Fraud Act (IFA), and refused to vacate his dismissal of the bad faith counterclaim.

Fraud and concealment as a basis to void the policy and preclude recovery

The declaratory judgment count focused on the argument that the insured violated the Concealment, Misrepresentation or Fraud Condition in the policy.

Judge Robreno observed that:

  1.  “[T]o void an insurance policy under Pennsylvania law, an insurer must prove the following factors by clear and convincing evidence: “(1) the insured made a false representation; (2) the insured knew the representation was false when it was made or the insured made the representation in bad faith; and (3) the representation was material to the risk being insured.”

  2. “The clear and convincing evidence standard requires evidence that is ‘so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing as to enable the [trier of fact] to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts [in] issue.’”

  3. “Pennsylvania courts have long ruled that a violation of the fraud and concealment provision of an insurance policy … serves as a complete bar to the insured’s recovery under the policy.”

There was no question that the insured knowingly made misrepresentations to the insurer through the altered invoices.  The issue was whether these misrepresentations were material.

Misrepresentations are material “if a reasonable insurance company, in determining its course of action, would attach importance to the facts misrepresented.” Judge Robreno found the misrepresentations material. The false invoices were provided in direct response to the insurer’s requesting proof of the valuations the insured’s adjusters submitted. He accepted the insurer’s argument that the insured was aware the insurer “would use the invoices to determine and verify the amount of loss.”

Thus, Judge Robreno voided the policy, and found no coverage due.

Court grants insurer summary judgment under the Insurance Fraud Act

The insurer also sought relief under Pennsylvania’s Insurance Fraud Act, 18 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann § 4117(g). There are three elements to an IFA claim: “1) presenting false, incomplete, or misleading statements to [the insurer]; 2) that were material to the claim; and 3) which were knowingly made with an intent to defraud.” The courts are split on whether the burden of proof is clear and convincing evidence or preponderance of the evidence.

The court had just ruled, however, under the clear and convincing evidence standard, that the insured made material misrepresentations that voided the policy for fraud.  Thus, the only issue in obtaining civil relief under the IFA was whether the insurer court prove the insured’s actions were taken with an intent to defraud.  Judge Robreno adduced examples from the record demonstrating the insured’s conduct was intentional and knowing.  Thus, he granted the insurer summary judgment on this count as well.

Common law fraud not established without showing justifiable reliance

Unlike the other two fraud based counts, common law fraud requires proof of justifiable reliance on the misrepresentations.  The insurer did not provide evidence of record to meet that element, and summary judgment was denied.  Judge Robreno noted, that the insurer “could, of course, pursue this claim at a trial. However, it does not appear that [it] would be entitled to compensatory damages beyond the litigation and investigation costs it may seek to recover as a result of prevailing on [the Insurance Fraud Act claim], nor does it appear that punitive damages would be appropriate in this case.”

Finally, Judge Robreno denied the insured’s motion to vacate the order dismissing its bad faith claims against the insured.  Further, in light of its success on the first two counts, the reverse bad faith claim was dismissed without prejudice in light of the insurer’s position that it had no reason to proceed with that claim.

Date of Decision:  April 12, 2021

State Auto Property & Casualty Insurance Co. v. Sigismondi Foreign Car Specialists, Inc., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-5578, 2021 WL 1343116 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 12, 2021) (Robreno, J.)

BAD FAITH CLAIM BARELY STATED BASED ON ALLEGED FAILURES TO INVESTIGATE, DELAY, AND LOW VALUATION, TAKEN IN THEIR TOTALITY (Middle District)

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This is a breach of contract and bad faith first party property damage claim.  The court denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss the bad faith claim.

The insured suffered a furnace malfunction that she claimed led to $35,000-$40,000 in damages. She later suffered a second malfunction leading to a roughly equal amount of additional damages.

The insurer valued the first claim at $15,000, paid that sum less the deductible, and refused to pay any sum for the second claim.  This full denial was based on the insured’s alleged failure to clean after the first incident, and that the only odor in the house was from cigarettes, not soot from the furnace discharge.

Middle District Judge Mariani found that while the complaint included some conclusory allegations, and the facts alleged on bad faith were “sparse”, the complaint’s allegations were “enough to barely ‘nudge[ ] [the] claim[ ] across the line from conceivable to plausible….’”

Delay related bad faith

The relevant facts pleaded were that the insurer waited one month until after the first loss to send out an adjuster to investigate.  Further, the insurer did not pay anything for the first loss for seven months. The court observed that “’bad faith may be premised on an insurer’s bad faith in investigating a claim, such as by failing to conduct a good faith investigation into the facts or failing to communicate with the claimant.’”  Further, “[a]lthough delay ‘on its own [does not] necessarily constitute bad faith’, the delay between a demand for benefits and an insurer’s determination of whether to pay a claim is a relevant factor in determining whether an insurer has acted in bad faith.”

Applying these principles to the factual allegations, Judge Mariani found enough delay pleaded in both sending out an investigator, and in paying on the first claim, to survive dismissal.

Valuation related bad faith

The court next addressed whether the valuation differences could amount to bad faith.  As stated, the insured provided estimates ranging from $35,000 to $40,000 and the carrier’s expert valuation was $15,000.  After taking out the deductible, the payment was $10,400.

Judge Mariani observed that “[a]lthough bad faith ‘is not present merely because an insurer makes a low but reasonable estimate of an insured’s damages,’ the disparity between the defendant insurer’s payment and the plaintiff’s estimates is a relevant consideration in bad faith claims.” He relied on Middle District Judge Mannion’s Meiser v. State Farm opinion for the proposition that an “extreme disparity” in the parties’ damage estimates can lend support to a bad faith claim, especially where exhibits are attached showing the extent of the damages. A link to our Meiser summary can be found here.

Judge Mariani found the $25,000 disparity, accompanied by exhibits explaining the damages, to be sufficient to support a bad faith claim. The opinion’s language indicates that the valuation allegations were read along with the delay allegations in evaluating the bad faith claim, and that it was the totality of these three factors (delayed investigation, delayed payment, and valuation disparity) that together made out a plausible bad faith claim.

[For a few examples of valuation disputes insufficient to state a bad faith claim, see this post.]

Failure to investigate related bad faith

As to totally denying the second claim, the complaint alleged denial was based on the insured’s alleged failure to clean the premises after the first loss. However, the insured allegedly informed the carrier that she and her daughter made a significant cleanup effort after the first malfunction and before the second, and the insurer knew this before denying the claim.  Thus, plaintiff alleged the carrier ignored the fact that she did clean, and then ignored her damage estimate transmitted to the carrier because of this putative failure to clean. The insured also alleged the carrier did not pay heed to her public adjuster “pointing out that the home was a forced, hot air system and that [the insurer] had agreed to clean the ducts on the second floor, but not the rooms that were contaminated with the soot/smoke….”

Judge Mariani found the totality of these factual allegations, taken in the light most favorable to plaintiff,  made out a bad faith claim for failure to conduct an adequate investigation, which in turn resulted in an unfounded claim denial. He added that, “[a]lthough discovery in this case may later reveal that Defendant did in fact have a reasonable basis to deny Plaintiff’s second claim, the Complaint states the minimum amount of facts necessary to allow Plaintiff’s bad faith claim to survive the motion to dismiss.”

After surveying the totality of the facts on both claims, Judge Mariani summarized as follows: “Though none of these factual allegations alone may be sufficient to state a claim under § 8371, taken together, Plaintiff has successfully, though barely, stated a plausible claim of bad faith.”

Date of Decision:  March 19, 2021

Chuplis v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:20-CV-1757, 2021 WL 1080932 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 19, 2021) (Mariani, J.)

CLAIM HANDLING REASONABLE + NO CLEAR AND CONVINCING EVIDENCE ON INTENT = NO BAD FAITH (Middle District)

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Middle District Judge Conner closely examined the claims handling history before granting the insurer summary judgment on plaintiff’s bad faith uninsured motorist claim.

The record’s details show the claims handler actively investigating the claim and injuries, communicating with the insured’s counsel, and discussing the case with two other involved insurers as to their valuation before making a settlement offer.  The settlement offer was a small fraction of the policy limit demand, but that could not create bad faith under the circumstances.

As the court stated,

At bottom, the record establishes nothing more than a legitimate disagreement over causation of [plaintiff’s] injuries and valuation of her claim. It is well settled that genuinely disputing causation and value is not tantamount to bad faith. That [the insurer] did not “immediately accede to” [a] demand for policy limits also is not, by itself, evidence of bad faith. … Nor does [the insured’s] belief that the preliminary offer was too low, without more, establish that [the insurer] acted unreasonably. … “[O]ur Courts have not recognized bad faith where the insurer makes a low but reasonable estimate of the insured’s losses.” … This is particularly true given that [the insurer] articulated legitimate reasons for doubting causation; reasonably concluded the claim would not pierce the limited-tort threshold; had not been advised of any wage-loss claim by [plaintiff’s] legal team; and, perhaps most importantly, made clear that its offer was not final.”

Judge Conner concluded that the insured “failed to identify any evidence—much less clear and convincing evidence—from which a reasonable juror could find that [the insurer] lacked a reasonable basis for its preliminary settlement offer.” Thus, the insured could not establish that the insurer’s conduct was unreasonable.  Summary judgment was warranted for failing to meet this first element of statutory bad faith.

Judge Connor also addressed the knowing or reckless disregard element as well.  The insured offered no clear and convincing evidence on intent to take an unreasonable position.  The insured argued, in conclusory language, that “critical information” was withheld and “irrefutable proof” existed to prove intent; but there were no facts adduced from the record to support these assertions. The documents referenced that purportedly provided clear and convincing proof did not even exist at the time of the insurer’s purported bad faith settlement offer.

Thus, summary judgment also was warranted for this failure to make out the second bad faith element.

Date of Decision: March 15, 2021

Castillo v. Progressive Insurance, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:19-CV-1628, 2021 WL 963478 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 15, 2021) (Conner, J.)

COURT PERMITS DISCOVERY OF DOCUMENTS AND EMAILS THAT WERE NOT ACTUALLY PRIVILEGED SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY MENTION LEGAL COUNSEL; LIMITS CLAIMS REP DISCOVERY TO MENTAL IMPRESSIONS NOT PREPARED IN ANTICIPATION OF LITIGATION; AND ALLOWS DISCOVERY OF RESERVES IN VALUATION BAD FAITH CASE (Middle District)

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This Pennsylvania federal opinion addresses bad faith discovery disputes.  The case involved first party fire damage losses. Plaintiffs sought various claims file documents, and the insurer produced a privilege log in connection with its objections and redactions. Magistrate Judge Saporito reviewed the documents in camera before ruling.

He identified four areas at issue: “(1) communications regarding expenses incurred and paid by the defendant; (2) communications with counsel; (3) mental impressions; and (4) other financial information.”

  1. Approvals of Legal Fees and Expenses Discoverable

“In general, the mere facts of legal consultation or employment, client identities, attorney’s fees and the scope and nature of employment are not privileged.” Further, “[a]ttorney billing records may be privileged if they reveal the nature of the services rendered.”

Here, documents reflecting only that legal fees and expenses were approved, without any reference to attorney-client communications or the nature of the work performed, are not privileged. Rather, they are administrative in nature, whether involving pre or post-litigation approvals.

  1. Emails strings at issue were not privileged

Under Pennsylvania law, a party seeking the protection of the attorney-client privilege must show there was “’(1) a communication (2) made between privileged persons (3) in confidence (4) for the purpose of obtaining or providing legal assistance for the client.’”

Here, the court had to review a number of email strings.  Judge Saporito observed that “’each version of an email string (i.e. a forward or reply of a previous email message) must be considered as a separate, unique document.’” Further, in preparing a privilege log, “’each message of the string which is privileged must be separately logged in order to claim privilege in that particular document.’” In practice, this “’simply requires that Defendants ensure that each withheld email within a string be logged in some fashion at least once.’”

The emails at issue all referenced legal counsel in some way, but were not themselves communications with counsel. Nor did they disclosure any attorney-client communications.  Thus, the attorney-client privilege did not apply.

  1. Claims representatives’ mental impressions prepared in anticipation of litigation were protected as work-product

“Mental impressions and opinions of a party and its agents are not generally protected by the work product doctrine unless they are prepared in anticipation of litigation.” “To that end, ‘work product prepared in the ordinary course of business is not immune from discovery.’”

Here, the insurer redacted documents in the claims file that included its claims representatives’ impressions, conclusions, and opinions. Judge Saporito had to make the fact-specific inquiry into when these representatives anticipated litigation.  He recognized that prudence requires parties to anticipate litigation, and to start preparing themselves for litigation at some time before the litigation is actually instituted.

Judge Saporito found a number of redactions warranted because the claims representatives anticipated litigation.  On the other hand, he ordered other redactions eliminated, and documents produced, where: (1) there wasn’t actually any work product, (2) the materials only involved an analysis of general business practices concerning “the investigation and evaluation of future, notional property claims involving suspicious circumstances,” and (3) the representative’s notations were made on an insurance application, which was clearly not done at a time when litigation would be anticipated.

  1. Reserves discoverable in bad faith action over valuation

Judge Saporito observed that courts in the Third Circuit are split over whether reserves are discoverable in bad faith cases. He followed Middle District Magistrate Judge Carlson’s Barnard decision, summarized here, for the proposition that the prevailing position favors discoverability if the bad faith claim at issue “relates to an insurer’s failure to settle or where there is a discrepancy regarding the value of the claim.” By contrast, if the bad faith claim does not involve valuation or liability estimates, reserve information is irrelevant.

The present case involved a valuation dispute, and Judge Saporito ordered production of reserve information.

Finally, Judge Saporito ordered production of certain information concerning the agent who sold plaintiffs the policy at issue.  He qualified this order by stating he was not ruling on whether this information could ultimately be admissible at trial.

Date of Decision:  March 5, 2021

Mazer v. Frederick Mutual Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 1:19-CV-01838, 2021 WL 850984 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 5, 2021) (Saporito, M.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)

NO PLAUSIBLE BAD FAITH CLAIM WHERE THERE IS SIMPLY A VALUATION DISPUTE OR REFUSAL TO IMMEDIATELY PAY POLICY LIMIT DEMAND (Middle District)

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The insured failed to plead a plausible claim in this UM bad faith case.

The 18-year old insured was rear-ended by an uninsured motorist, and suffered a long list of injuries. She had $100,000 in UM coverage.  The carrier offered $11,300 to settle her claims, and rejected a policy limit demand.  The insured brought breach of contract and statutory bad faith claims, and the insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith claim.

In determining whether a plaintiff states a plausible bad faith claim, a court must separate conclusory allegations from factual allegations, because conclusory allegations are not entitled to an assumption of truth for Rule 12(b)(6) purposes.

Here, the complaint alleges at least 16 bases for bad faith (listed below). Magistrate Judge Schwab found, however, the complaint “contains mostly conclusory statements that are not supported by factual allegations.” Thus, “[a]lthough long, [the insured’s] list of how the defendant allegedly acted in bad faith contains conclusions, rather than facts.”

Magistrate Judge Schwab cites a number of cases finding these sorts of allegations to be conclusory, including Middle District Judge Caputo’s 2019 Peters decision, 2017 Meyers decision, and 2012 Sypeck decision, Middle District Judge Rambo’s 2018 Rickell decision, Middle District Judge Caldwell’s 2010 Muth decision, as well as the Third Circuit’s frequently cited 2012 Smith decision.

Next, in looking at the factual allegations, the insured merely alleges she was diagnosed with certain injuries, went through physical therapy, gave the insurer notice of her claim, and forwarded various records for the insurer’s review. The insured’s counsel spoke with the insurer’s claims department, and made the carrier aware the insured was 18 at the time of the accident, continued to suffer from visual impairment and post-traumatic headaches, among other injuries, as a result of the head trauma she suffered, and that the insurer offered $11,300 to settle.

“These factual allegations, however, are not enough to state a bad faith claim upon which relief can be granted.”

A disagreement over a claim’s value, without the facts needed to show bad faith, cannot alone create bad faith. Here, the insured did not allege “facts to support an inference that the defendant did not have a reasonable basis for its settlement offer or that the defendant knew or recklessly disregarded any lack of a reasonable basis for such an offer.” Citing the Third Circuit’s Smith decision (above), Judge Caputo’s 2019 Clarke decision and 2019 Moran decision, Eastern District Judge Baylson’s June 2020 Dietz decision, Middle District Judge Kane’s 2019 Rosenthal decision, and the 2009 Superior Court Johnson decision, Magistrate Judge Schwab observes that low but reasonable settlement offers do not constitute bad faith, and that a “low-ball” offer, standing alone, cannot make out a bad faith claim.

Nor can refusing immediately to pay a policy limit demand by itself constitute bad faith. “Indeed, courts have consistently held that a dispute or discrepancy in the valuation of a claim between the insurer and the insured is not alone indicative of bad faith.” The insured simply did not plead facts “from which it can plausibly be inferred that the defendant’s offer was unreasonable and made in bad faith, rather than made as part of the ordinary course of negotiations between insurers and insureds.” (internal quotation marks omitted)

Magistrate Judge Schwab dismissed the bad faith claim, but with leave to amend. This allowed for a second amended complaint to be filed “if appropriate, to state a bad faith claim upon which relief can be granted.”

Durdach v. LM General Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 3:20-CV-00926, 2021 WL 84174 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2021) (Schwab, M.J.)

The litany of conclusory allegations referenced above, include:

  1. unreasonably delay[ing] the processing of a valid claim;

  2. kn[owingly] or recklessly disregard[ing] the fact that the delay was unreasonable;

  3. failing to objectively and fairly evaluate Plaintiff’s claim;

  4. engaging in dilatory and abusive claims handling;

  5. failing to adopt or implement reasonable standards in evaluating Plaintiff’s claim;

  6. acting unreasonably and unfairly in response to Plaintiff’s claim;

  7. not attempting in good faith to effectuate a fair, prompt, and equitable settlement of Plaintiff’s claim in which the Defendant’s liability under the policy had become reasonably clear;

  8. subordinating the interests of its insured and those entitled under its insured’s coverage to its own financial monetary interests;

  9. failing to promptly offer reasonable payment to the Plaintiff;

  10. failing to reasonably and adequately investigate Plaintiff’s claim; k. failing to reasonably and adequately evaluate or review the medical documentation in Defendant’s possession;

  11. violating the fiduciary duty owed to the Plaintiff;

  12. acting unreasonably and unfairly by withholding underinsured motorist benefits justly due and owing to the Plaintiff;

  13. failing to make an honest, intelligent, and objective settlement offer;

  14. causing Plaintiff to expend money on the presentation of her claim; and

  15. failing to make a reasonable settlement offer despite knowing the severity of a visual injury and post-traumatic headaches in an 18-year old.

[The insured] also alleges that the defendant failed to act in good faith and “engaged in wanton and reckless conduct….”