Archive for the 'PA – Insurer wrong, but reasonable' Category

COVERAGE DUE, BUT NO BAD FAITH WHERE (1) REASONABLE INVESTIGATION AND (2) REASONABLY DEBATABLE BASIS TO DECLINE COVERAGE (Philadelphia Federal)

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The case centered on a dispute over whether the plaintiff had an insurable interest in its tenant’s property improvements.  The carrier denied coverage for damage to those improvements, asserting the policy did not cover tenant improvements.  The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

The court found the policy did provide coverage, and ruled for the insured on its breach of contract claim.

On bad faith, the insured alleged the insurer both failed to investigate and that it unreasonably denied coverage.  Magistrate Judge Rice disagreed, finding the insured “lacks clear and convincing evidence that [the insurer] investigated and handled the claim in bad faith or denied coverage without a reasonable basis.”

First, a seven-month delay in the claim handling process was reasonable in light of the insurer’s very detailed and active investigation into the claim.

Second, even though the insurer incorrectly denied coverage, “[b]ecause Pennsylvania courts have held that insurable interest is generally decided by the jury … and there was testimony … contradicting [the insured’] expectation of benefit from the improvements, [the insurer] had sufficient reasonable basis to support its coverage decision.” The court’s own “analysis demonstrates … the existence of an insurable interest as a matter of law is a close question subject to reasonable debate.”

Date of Decision:  June 11, 2021

Greentree Properties Corp. v. Aspen Specialty Ins. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-4646, 2021 WL 2400727 (E.D. Pa. June 11, 2021) (Rice, M.J.)

NO BAD FAITH WHERE NO COVERAGE DUE; NO BAD FAITH WHERE LAW IS UNSETTLED ON SCOPE OF COVERAGE; KVAERNER INTERPRETATION OF OCCURRENCE CAN APPLY TO PROPERTY DAMAGE OUTSIDE THE SCOPE OF THE CONSTRUCTION CONTRACT (Middle District)

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There can be no bad faith where no coverage is due, or where coverage is a close question based on unsettled law.

Court Applies Kvaerner to ALL Reasonably Foreseeable Damages Resulting from Faulty Workmanship

Middle District Judge Brann addressed an expanding body of case law in Pennsylvania’s Superior Court that would appear to require coverage for damages flowing from faulty workmanship, even if the faulty workmanship itself is not covered.  He rejected, however, the Superior Court’s interpretation of what constitutes a covered occurrence under the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2006 Kvaerner decision.

[We have previously posted on Kvaerner in the context of coverage and otherwise, with two case summaries in 2019, here and here, this 2018 case summary, this 2014 summary, in 2013 on the Superior Court’s Indalex decision in relation to Kvaerner, and in this 2009 summary.]

Judge Brann relied on Third Circuit precedent emphasizing that all reasonably foreseeable damages resulting from faulty workmanship do not constitute an occurrence, whether that is damage to the product being constructed or damages to property beyond the scope of the construction contract resulting from that faulty workmanship.

Thus, e.g., in Judge Brann’s and the Third Circuit’s perspective, if a contractor improperly installs a roof, the roof leaks, and other parts of the building or personal property are damaged, there is no occurrence for this other damage to third party property, even though it is beyond the contracted work itself, if that other damage is reasonably foreseeable.  By contrast, the new Superior Court cases would find this third party damage outside the scope of the actual construction work to be a covered occurrence, even if reasonably foreseeable.

Judge Brann observes, “Despite the caselaw that has emerged from the Superior Court, the [District] Court notes that it is not bound by these decisions. As the Third Circuit has explained, although courts should ‘give due deference to the decisions of intermediate state courts…[s]tate appellate decisions…are not controlling.’ Thus, ‘while [courts] may not ignore the decision of an intermediate appellate court, [they] are free to reach a contrary result if, by analyzing other persuasive data, [they] predict that the State Supreme Court would hold otherwise.’”

In the present case, Judge Brann held no coverage due to replace a roof that had been improperly constructed. Further, there was no coverage due to areas of the roof damaged that were outside the scope of the contracted roof work, which also had to be replaced as a result of the faulty construction, as these third party property damages were reasonably foreseeable. Thus, he granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of the insurer as to coverage.

No Bad Faith Where no Coverage Due

On the insured’s bad faith claim, Judge Brann likewise granted judgment on the pleadings. First, he observed that the insurer properly denied benefits. Thus, he found there could be no bad faith because the insurer “certainly had ‘a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy,’ meaning that [the insured] cannot demonstrate bad faith.”

Judge Brann then added, “even if this Court were incorrect in its decision that [the insurer] owes no duty to indemnify [the insured], the duty to indemnify is, at the very least, debatable, in light of the differing conclusions reached by the Superior Court and the Third Circuit. Given that the caselaw in this area does not establish a clear duty … to indemnify …, it cannot be said that [the insurer] had no reasonable basis to deny benefits.”

Date of Decision:  January 26, 2021

Berkley Specialty Insurance Company v. Masterforce Construction Corp., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania No. 4:19-CV-01162, 2021 WL 254002 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 26, 2021) (Brann, J.)

INSURER CAN GO BEYOND FOUR CORNERS OF COMPLAINT TO DETERMINE IF A PERSON IS AN INSURED IN THE FIRST INSTANCE, WHEN DEFENDING BAD FAITH CASE (Third Circuit, Pennsylvania Law)

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The Third Circuit addressed the central issue of whether the defendant was an insured, and how to analyze that factual issue in ruling on coverage and bad faith claims.

The named insured went with his girlfriend to a picnic, where they met up with the mother of the named insured’s child.  The girlfriend was also a named insured, but the mother was a stranger to the insurance contract. The mother decided to move the named insureds’ car, and struck plaintiff while driving the car. The injured plaintiff sued the two named insureds and the mother.

The carrier covered the named insureds, but took the position that the mother was not a permissive user and therefore was not an insured under the policy. The mother stipulated to a judgment and assigned her bad faith and breach of contract claims to the injured plaintiff, who sued the carrier.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the insurer, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

The Four Corners Rule does not Apply to Determining if a Party is an Insured for Duty to Defend Purposes

The Third Circuit first addressed the issue of whether the four corners rule encompasses determinations of whether a party is an insured in the first instance.

The issue has never been addressed by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

The insurer argued it could not be bad faith to take the position the mother was not an insured, even if the complaint indicated otherwise, because the law on the issue is unsettled.  The carrier asserted it could use extrinsic evidence to show the mother was not an insured, and denied coverage on that basis. The Third Circuit agreed that “because Pennsylvania courts have not ruled on this issue, [the insurer] did not act in bad faith after it ‘reasonably determined that [mother] was not an insured under the Policy.’”

On the merits of coverage itself, the court concluded “that, when the insurer determines a claim is outside the scope of the insurance policy before a suit is filed, it has no duty to defend because it has effectively ‘confine[d] the claim to a recovery that the policy [does] not cover.’” Here, the insurer investigated the claim, and determined the mother was not an insured because she was not a permissive user.  “After that determination, the four corners rule no longer applied. [The insurer] did not have a duty to defend, and its actions do not show bad faith.”

Bad Faith Investigation

The court then went on to examine whether a bad faith claim could be stated solely on the basis that the insurer’s investigation was conducted in bad faith.  As repeated on this blog ad naseum, there is a genuine issue as to whether there is an independent bad faith claim for poor investigation practices when no coverage is otherwise due. For example see this post from January 2020, this post from August 2020, and this post from earlier in August 2020. A close examination in this case, however, shows the lack of investigation bad faith claim is actually intertwined with the coverage issue. Thus, this is not a case where a party is trying to prove bad faith even though no coverage is due.

Treating investigation based bad faith as a separate cause of action, rather than merely evidence of bad faith, the court observed “[g]ood faith in this context requires that an insurance determination be ‘made diligently and accurately, pursuant to a good faith investigation into the facts’ that is ‘sufficiently thorough to provide [the insurer] with a reasonable foundation for its actions.’” The mother argued the record showed she had “implied permission” to use the car, and the carrier acted in bad faith by unreasonably failing to recognize she had implied permission. The court disagreed, finding no adequate evidence to defeat summary judgment on the issue.

No Common Law Bad Faith Claim

“Finally, although the standard for common law bad faith diverges from statutory bad faith … the common law action for bad faith is a contract claim. Thus, because [the mother] was not an insured, she was not party to the contract, and she had no common law contract claim to assign….”

Date of Decision: December 8, 2020

Myers v. Geico Cas. Co., U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 19-1108, 2020 WL 7230600 (3d Cir. Dec. 8, 2020) (Fisher, Restrepo, Roth, JJ.)

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.)

INSURER REASONABLY RELYING ON ENGINEERING INSPECTION REPORT CANNOT BE LIABLE FOR BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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The insureds had two nearly identical losses. In 2016, there was water damage to their roof and interior home damage. The insurer originally paid for the interior damage, while having an engineer inspect the roof. The engineer concluded the roof damage was not the result of a storm, but the result of uncovered faulty construction. Moreover, he concluded that even the interior home damage resulted from the uncovered faulty roof construction. The insurer issued a denial letter on this basis and the insureds did not respond.

Two years later, there was another storm, with new roof and interior damage. The insurer sent out the same engineer who reached the same conclusions, i.e., the damage resulted from faulty construction, not storm damage. Further, the record showed that the insureds had not repaired the roof after the original loss two years earlier. Again, under the policy, “coverage for damage caused by faulty, inadequate, or defective workmanship was explicitly excluded in their homeowner’s insurance policy.” Thus, the insurer denied the second claim.

On the second claim, the insured engaged a public adjuster and their own engineer. The public adjuster inspected the home, and took the position the insureds were not seeking coverage for faulty construction, but for damage caused by wind, snow and ice, on the theory that the poorly installed roof only made the home susceptible to these covered elements. The insurer’s engineer reviewed the other engineer’s report, but did not change his position, nor did the insurer rescind its denial.

The insureds sued for breach of contract and bad faith. The insurer moved for summary judgment on the bad faith claim.

The court observed that an insurer “may defeat a claim of bad faith by showing that it had a reasonable basis for its actions.” The court tied this axiom to the legal principle that summary judgment is warranted in bad faith cases when insureds cannot meet their burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the insurer’s conduct was unreasonable.

The insureds attempted to argue that the insurer improperly relied on its expert’s denying the first claim to deny the second, independent, claim. Judge Bartle rejected that argument.

The insureds conceded they never repaired the original damages identified two years earlier. Further, they did not dispute that the insurer’s engineer came out a second time and did a completely new report concluding “that the same unrepaired faulty construction caused the claimed damage,” and further rejecting the insureds’ claim the damage was caused by wind, ice, and snow.

In finding no bad faith, Judge Bartle stated “the cause of damage is not material to the plaintiffs’ bad faith claim. … Rather, the plaintiffs must present clear and convincing evidence to substantiate their claim that [the insurer] acted unreasonably.” They did not do so in this case.

The record demonstrated the insurer sent its engineer out to do a second inspection, and that the second denial was based on the second inspection, not events that transpired two years earlier. Once it was established that the insurer did base its denial on a current second inspection, the court found that “[f]or purposes of defeating a bad faith claim, an insurer may rely on the conclusions of its independent experts.”

Thus, summary judgment was granted on the bad faith claim.

Date of Decision: April 9, 2020

Balu v. The Cincinnati Ins. Co., U. S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania NO. 19-3604, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63987 (E.D. Pa. April 9, 2020 (Bartle, J.)

NO BAD FAITH: (1) NO BENEFIT DUE; (2) NO ESTOPPEL UNDER THE UIPA OR UCSP REGULATIONS; (3) AN OVERSIGHT CAUSING DELAY IS NOT BAD FAITH (Philadelphia Federal)

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The court described this as the case of the missing email. The insurance policy at issue covered various cars. The insured emailed its broker to add another vehicle to the policy. The broker claims it never got the email, and thus never asked the insurer to issue an endorsement adding the new car to the policy. As things sometimes go in life, the new car was involved in a collision, damaging another vehicle as well as its own new car.

The insured reported the claim. However, the insured identified its vehicle as one of existing cars listed in the policy, rather than the new unlisted vehicle. The insurer accepted coverage, and even paid damages to the other driver. The insurer later reversed itself on coverage once its appraiser determined the insured’s vehicle was not the car identified in the claim form, and was not covered under the policy.

The police report did list the correct vehicle. The insurer had the police report at the time it initially provided coverage, and only reversed itself when its appraiser realized that the damaged car was not the car on the claim form and was not listed in the policy.

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith, among other claims against the insurer as well as the broker. The insurer moved for summary judgment, which the court granted.

There is no breach of contract, or estoppel under the UIPA or UCSP regulations

First, there was no breach of contract, as the vehicle at issue never became part of the policy. The insured argued, however, that the insured was estopped from denying coverage under the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA) and the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices (UCSP) regulations governing “Standards for prompt, fair and equitable settlements applicable to insurers”. The insured relied on 31 Pa. Code § 146.7(a)(1), which states that, “Within 15 working days after receipt by the insurer of properly executed proofs of loss, the first-party claimant shall be advised of the acceptance or denial of the claim by the insurer.”

Judge Wolson rejected the statutory/regulatory argument for three reasons:

  1. There is no private right of action under the UIPA and UCSP regulations, and only Pennsylvania’s Insurance Commissioner can enforce the UIPA and UCSP regulations.

  2. The policy itself did not incorporate the UIPA or UCSP obligations or impose those obligations on the insurer. “Absent the incorporation of these obligations into the Policy, their potential violation does not breach the Policy.”

  3. The doctrines of waiver or estoppel cannot “create an insurance contract where none existed.”

THERE IS NO BAD FAITH

  1. The broker is not an insurer subject to the bad faith statute

First, the court recognized that there was no sustainable statutory bad faith action against the broker because it was not an insurer.

  1. There is no bad faith where no benefit is denied

Next, as to the insurer, “To prevail on a bad faith claim, a plaintiff must present clear and convincing evidence that, among other things, an insurer ‘did not have a reasonable basis for denying benefits under the policy’ or that an insurer committed a ‘frivolous or unfounded refusal to pay proceeds of a policy.’” Because the insurer had no contractual obligation to pay its refusal could not have been unreasonable, and the claim failed.

  1. The UIPA and UCSP regulations do no prevent changing a coverage decision based on new information

The court rejected another argument based on the UIPA and UCSP regulations cited above. The insured argued the failure to pay was unreasonable once the insurer accepted coverage. The court found, however, the UCSP regulations did not “prevent an insurer from changing a coverage determination based on new information.”

More importantly to the court, the insured adduced no case law adding such a gloss to section 146.7, i.e. a mandate that once coverage was accepted it could never be denied under any circumstances. Thus, it was reasonable for the insurer to interpret that regulation to permit an insurer to revise a coverage decision based on new information.

  1. A Delay based on an Oversight is not the Basis for Bad Faith

Finally, any delay in revising its coverage determination was likewise not bad faith. Citing the 2007 DeWalt decision, the court observed that an “insurer’s actions in allegedly delaying investigation did not constitute bad faith under Pennsylvania law [when] there was no evidence that such delay was deliberate or knowing, or was unreasonable.”

While the carrier “probably could have been more diligent” in determining which vehicle was involved in the collision by looking at the police report earlier, “an insurer ‘need not show that the process used to reach its conclusion was flawless or that its investigatory methods eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusion.’” There was nothing in the record to establish the insurer “acted with reckless disregard of its obligations or otherwise fell so short that it acted in bad faith.”

Date of Decision: April 1, 2020

Live Face on Web, LLC v. Merchants Insurance Group, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania Case No. 2:19-cv-00528-JDW, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56852 (E.D. Pa. April 1, 2020) (Wolson, J.)

Our thanks to attorney Daniel Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk Blog for bringing this case to our attention.  We also note the Tort Talk Blog’s three recent posts on post-Koken motions to sever and stay bad faith claims in the Western District, York County, and Lancaster County.

(1) NO BAD FAITH WHERE COVERAGE LAW UNCERTAIN (2) BAD FAITH POSSIBLE FOR DELAY AND DENIAL OF ALLEGEDLY UNADDRESSED CLAIM (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involved a highly disputed factual issue on coverage, with no clear guidance in the case law. The court denied summary judgment on the insured’s breach of contract claim, and rendered a split decision on the two bad faith claims.

The Close Coverage Call

Coverage existed if a roof was damaged by wind, allowing water to enter a building. The issue was whether a tarp could be considered part of a roof. The insurer denied coverage on the basis the tarp at issue was a temporary stopgap when blown off during a windstorm. The insured argued the tarp was sufficiently stable and integrated to be part of a roof system when it was blown off.

The court looked at local and national case law on when a tarp might be part of a more permanent structure, and thus part of a roof. The court found the issue highly fact-driven under this case law, and inappropriate for summary judgment. A jury had to decide the issue after hearing the disputed evidence and expert opinions.

The Bad Faith Claims

On the bad faith claims, the court stated that both denial of a benefit and/or improper investigative practices could constitute bad faith.

[As we have written on this Blog ad naseum, the idea that statutory bad faith covers anything other than benefit denials arguably runs contrary to Pennsylvania Supreme Court case law. In the 2007 Toy v. Metropolitan Life decision, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court strongly appears to state that only denial of a benefit creates a cognizable statutory bad faith action, whereas matters like poor claims handling would be evidence of bad faith. See this article.

A few months later, the Supreme Court seems to confirm this conclusion. In Ash v. Continental Insurance Company, citing Toy, the Supreme Court states, “The bad faith insurance statute, on the other hand, is concerned with ‘the duty of good faith and fair dealing in the parties’ contract and the manner by which an insurer discharge[s] its obligation of defense and indemnification in the third party claim context or its obligation to pay for a loss in the first party claim context.’” (Emphasis added)

While it appears highly likely Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court made clear 13 years ago that section 8371 is limited to claims for denying benefits, numerous subsequent opinions conclude that there can be other bases for statutory bad faith. These cases typically do not address Toy or Ash in reaching this conclusion.]

In the present case, the insured allegedly made two separate claims, 19 days apart. The first had to do with wind damage to roof shingles, and the second addressed the issue concerning the tarp and interior water damage.

Bad Faith Possible for Undue Delay

On the first claim, the insured alleged it gave proper notice of loss, and the insurer failed to respond at all to the claim. The insurer alleged it had no notice, but in any event took the position that its denial letter addressed both the roof shingle and tarp claims.

The court found that there was an issue of whether the insurer had constructive notice of the first claim, even without formal notice. The adjuster was made fully aware of the event, but it is unclear if the insurer thought of this as a distinct event or just part of the continuum in a single claim. It was also unclear whether the denial letter actually addressed the shingle damage as such.

Thus, bad faith had to go to the jury. “If a jury were to conclude that Defendant was aware that Plaintiff had made a claim for the April damage, but ignored it, that could be seen as an objectively unreasonable, frivolous, intentional refusal to pay (or to otherwise resolve the claim in a timely fashion).”

[While there are certainly claims handling issues here regarding delay and responsiveness to an insured, this claim ultimately includes the denial of a benefit. Thus, the issue of whether there can be statutory bad faith without the denial of a benefit is not actually before the court.]

No Bad Faith where Governing Law is Uncertain

As to the second claim, the insurer won summary judgment. This gets back to the dispute over whether the tarp constitutes a roof. “An insurer who makes a reasonable legal conclusion based on an uncertain area of the law has not acted in bad faith.” Thus, “[w]ith no binding guidance from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or the Third Circuit, and numerous fact-intensive cases on the subject, Defendant reasonably interpreted the membrane, and not the tarp, to be the roof. Even if that call is ultimately found to have been incorrect, Defendant did not act in bad faith by denying the claim.”

Date of Decision: March 18, 2020

Harrisburg v. Axis Surplus Ins. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-1213, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48115 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 18, 2020) (Beetlestone, J.)

UIM JURY VERDICT NOT RELEVANT TO BAD FAITH CASE BECAUSE IT OCCURRED AFTER THE INSURER HAD COMPLETED ITS CLAIM EVALUATION (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this UIM bad faith case, the insureds demanded UIM policy limits which the insurer did not pay. The insureds took their case to trial, and the jury verdict far exceeded policy limits. The insureds pursued a claim for bad faith, arguing among other things that the jury verdict could be used as evidence of bad faith.

The court disagreed. Bad faith can only be determined based on the insurer’s conduct in evaluating the claim when it was submitted and on “the information available to the insurer during the claims processing”. The jury verdict was rendered after the insurer had done its claim evaluation. Thus, the jury verdict was not relevant to bad faith.

The central legal issue in the case was whether the insureds had executed some version of an enforceable UIM policy limit sign down, below their liability coverage. The court’s detailed analysis revealed that the insured’s application, which would otherwise have effected an enforceable sign down, was ineffective because it made that decision contingent on another required form that was only signed over one month later. The accident at issue occurred during the interim. The court found that there was no effective sign down, and the UIM limits defaulted to the liability limits, a difference between $300,000 and $750,000.

The insureds claimed that asking them to sign the second document constituted bad faith. The insurer consistently took the position that the second document was not necessary to succeed on the sign down argument; rather, the application controlled and the second document was basically redundant.

Magistrate Judge Rice disagreed with the carrier’s position on the application as stated above, but still found no bad faith:

“Nor does the failure to have [the insured] sign the UIM coverage selection form until [one month after the application] constitute bad faith. [The insurer] consistently maintained that the … application established the UIM policy limit, and the [insureds] had access to all relevant documents at all times. My post-trial disagreement with that determination fails to establish … bad faith.”

Date of Decision: February 18, 2020

Gibson v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 18-4919, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27531 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 18, 2020) (Rice, M.J.)

EVEN THOUGH COVERAGE MIGHT BE DUE, INSURED COULD NOT ESTABLISH DENIAL WAS UNREASONABLE (Philadelphia Federal)

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This case involved a wall collapse. The insured and carrier provided each other with expert reports on causation. The carrier’s expert analysis would result in a finding of no coverage under the policy, but the insured’s expert analysis would result in coverage. The insurer denied coverage, and the insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.

After discovery, the insured moved for summary judgment on both counts. The court denied summary judgment on the contract claim, because issues of fact remained on causation that might allow for coverage, but granted summary judgment on the bad faith claim after finding that the insured could not meet her burden to show the insurer lacked a reasonable basis in denying coverage.

In addressing bad faith, the court observed that an insurer can defeat bad faith by showing there was a reasonable basis for its action. The court further made clear that at the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff’s obligation to prove its case at trial by clear and convincing evidence of bad faith was a necessary consideration. In this case, even taking the facts in the insured’s favor, the insurer had a reasonable basis to deny the claim.

The insurer’s denial was based on a reputable forensic engineer’s report that determined two causes of the collapse; both of which were excluded under the policy. The insured argued that the carrier should have rejected this report, and instead followed the analysis in the report provided by the insured’s expert. The court found this was not enough to make out a claim of bad faith because “the mere fact that the parties disagree about coverage is not enough to show bad faith.” The court cited Post v. St. Paul Travelers Ins. Co., for the proposition that there is no bad faith “when the plaintiff could only show the parties disagreed about coverage….”

The insured also argued bad faith because the insurer allegedly “ignored the possibility that [the insured’s] house would be demolished.” The court found this irrelevant to the bad faith claim.

“If the collapse was not covered under the insurance policy, [the insurer] would not have been obligated to pay [the insured] regardless of whether her house was later demolished. In other words, whether the house was demolished would have no impact on [the] coverage decision.” Thus, this argument did not go to the reasonableness of the coverage decision itself.

In sum, the insured did not adduce evidence that the insurer lacked a reasonable basis for its coverage decision, and summary judgment was granted on the bad faith count.

Date of Decision: January 31, 2020

Hentz v. Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania CIVIL ACTION No. 19-2007, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17379 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 31, 2020) (Sanchez, J.)

THERE IS NO CAUSE OF ACTION FOR “INSTITUTIONAL BAD FAITH” (Pennsylvania Superior Court) (Non-Precedential)

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In this unpublished opinion, Pennsylvania’s Superior Court addressed whether “institutional bad faith” states a private cause of action under Pennsylvania law. Much like yesterday’s post, the Superior Court emphasized that Pennsylvania bad faith law requires focusing on the case and parties at hand, and not the insurer’s conduct toward other parties or its alleged universal practices. The court also addressed other issues concerning statutory bad faith and Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL), among other matters. In this post, we only address all the bad faith and  UTPCPL claims against the insurer.

Factual Background and Trial Court Rulings

The case begins with a home remodeler’s attempt to destroy a bee’s nest in one small section of a house. This unfortunate effort only caused larger problems, contaminating and damaging the house. The chain of misfortune continued when remediation efforts led to more damage, with the home allegedly becoming uninhabitable. At a minimum, all sides agreed some level of reconstruction work was now needed.

The homeowners’ insurer engaged a contractor to fix the original problem. The homeowners eventually challenged the quality of that contractor’s work, which they contended added to the damage. They eventually refused to allow that contractor on site, and unilaterally hired a second contractor to take over. Both the insured and insurer retained their own engineers, who disagreed on the scope of the damage and reconstruction work required.

The second contractor was owned by the insured husband’s parents. The husband himself was the second company’s project manager on the job. The trial court stated that the husband agreed with the position that he “negotiated an oral contract on behalf of … himself and his wife… with himself, as project manager of and on behalf of [the second contractor]” for the reconstruction work. The insurer and first contractor disputed the necessity and cost of the work carried out by the second contractor, as well as other costs.

The trial court ruled for the insurer on breach of warranty, emotional distress, UTPCPL, and bad faith claims, but in favor of the insureds on their breach of contract claim.

There is no Cause of Action in Pennsylvania for Institutional Bad Faith

The insureds argued that institutional bad faith could be the basis for asserting statutory bad faith. Under this theory, a claim can be based solely on an insurer’s policies, practices, and procedures as applied universally to all insureds. The present plaintiffs wanted to introduce evidence to support such institutionalized bad faith conduct. Both the trial and appellate courts rejected this theory.

The Superior Court emphasized that a bad faith action is limited to “the company’s conduct toward the insured asserting the claim.” Thus, “’bad faith claims are fact specific and depend on the conduct of the insurer vis-à-vis the insured.’” The Superior Court agreed with the trial court “that there is no separate cause of action of institutional bad faith.” It stated, that the bad faith statute “authorizes specified actions by the trial court ‘if the court finds that the insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured . . . ,’ not to the world at large.” (Court’s emphasis).

The Insurer did not Act in Bad Faith

  1. The policy and procedure manual/guideline arguments failed on the merits.

The Superior Court ruled that the trial court’s findings did not result in a refusal to consider evidence relating to the insurer’s conduct and practices. In fact, the insurer’s manuals, guidelines, and procedures were admitted as evidence, all of which were considered by the trial court. This evidence, however, was not considered as part of an institutional bad faith case. Rather, it was only relevant to determining if the insurer acted in bad faith toward the specific plaintiff-insureds, and not to the universe of all insureds.

In deciding the bad faith issue, when the trial court was presented with evidence of the insurer’s policies and procedures, it “did not find them to be improper when applied to the [insureds’] claim, although not a separate claim concerning ‘institutional bad faith.’” (Court’s emphasis) Thus, the actual plaintiffs could not make out a case for themselves on this evidence because they “failed to establish a nexus between [the insurer’s] business policies and the specific claims … asserted in support of bad faith.”

  1. The insureds could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard.

The trial court found the insurer had not acted in bad faith on other facts of record, and the Superior Court found no abuse of discretion in this ruling. Both courts emphasized the insured’s burden of proof is clear and convincing evidence. Thus, the trial court stated, “[i]cannot be reasonably said, given the facts and evidence adduced at trial, that [the insurer] lacked a reasonable basis for denying benefits and/or that [it] knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of a reasonable basis to deny benefits…. Mere negligence or bad judgment in failing to pay a claim does not constitute bad faith. An insurer may always aggressively investigate and protect its interests. Particularly in light of the higher burden of proof, specifically the requirement that [insureds] must prove a bad faith claim by ‘clear and convincing’ evidence, the record in this case does not support the assertion of statutory bad faith….”

Specifically, the court focused on alleged (i) failures to pay engineering fees, (ii) delays in hiring engineers, (iii) unduly restricting the engineer’s ability to opine, and (iv) instructions that the first contractor and its engineer disregard building codes.

The insurer adduced evidence that (i) it paid engineering fees, (ii) its original decision not to hire an engineer was done based on information provided by the first contractor and a building code officer, (iii) it did agree to hire an engineer once the insureds provided their list of concerns, and (iv) the engineer opined the home was not uninhabitable. The insurer also put on evidence that its adjuster never told the first contractor to ignore the building code, but rather expected the contractor to comply with existing code requirements.

On these facts, the Superior Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding the insureds failed to meet the clear and convincing evidence standard.

The UTPCPL does not Apply to Claim Handling

Both the trial court and Superior Court concluded that the UTPCPL does not apply to insurer claim handling cases.

Date of Decision: January 14, 2020

Wenk v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., Superior Court of Pennsylvania No. 1284 WDA 2018, No. 1287 WDA 2018, No. 1288 WDA 2018, 2020 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 178 (Pa. Super. Ct. Jan. 14, 2020) (Lazarus, Olson, Shogan, JJ.) (non-precedential)

The January 14, 2020 decision was not a final disposition, and a subsequent opinion was filed on February 7, 2020, attached here, which appears to be identical to the January 14, 2020 opinion.

Our thanks to Daniel Cummins of the excellent Tort Talk blog for brining this case to our attention.