Archive for the 'PA – UIM/UM Cases' Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Pratter, then states:

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

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

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

Date of Decision:  April 15, 2021

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

NO BAD FAITH WHERE INSURER’S POSITION ON COVERAGE WAS CORRECT, AND OTHER ISSUES WERE BELATEDLY RAISED POST-TRIAL (Third Circuit)

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The Third Circuit’s precedential decision focused primarily on what constitutes a sufficient writing to request lower underinsured motorist limits under 75 Pa. C.S. § 1734. That statute only provides there must be a “request in writing”.  After close analysis, the panel determined that such a request can effectively be made in the insurance application itself, without the need for using a specialized form.

“The statute says little beyond that [there must be a request in writing]. But that silence speaks volumes. As we reiterate today, the statute means what it says: an insured can make that choice ‘in writing’ in any writing as long as the choice is clear.”

In this case, the insured requested lower than the maximum UIM limits in her written insurance application.  After suffering a serious injury, and despite the application asking for lower limits and the policy being issued with those lower limits, the insured demanded the maximum UIM limits allowed by statute.

She argued the application request was not binding because she had not filled out a separate form the insurer itself provided, which was designed for the insured to expressly acknowledge she was accepting these lower limits.  The insurer took the position that even without the insurer filling out the acknowledgment form, the written request in the application was sufficient to set lower limits for UIM coverage, and refused to pay full limits allowed by the statute.

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith.  The district court agreed with the insured on the policy limit issued, but dismissed the bad faith claim. The case proceeded to trial and jury awarded $1.75 million, which the trial judge molded to $750,000 to meet the UIM maximum, rather than the lower sum requested in the application.

A summary of the trial court’s decision can be found here.

For the reasons stated above, the Third Circuit reversed and found the lower limit requested in the application controlling. It ordered the trial court to mold the verdict to $300,000.

The Third Circuit did affirm the trial court’s dismissal of the insured’s bad faith claim.  The insured tried to attack the bad faith claim’s dismissal, post-verdict, via a motion for reconsideration.

  1. First, the appellate panel agreed with the trial court that the jury verdict was irrelevant to bad faith, and that the trial court should solely look “at the actions and omissions of [the insurer] to evaluate [the insured’s] claim when it was submitted and then processed. [Note:  We recently posted on a New Jersey federal decision similarly rejecting this type of “hindsight” bad faith analysis.]

  2. As the arguments were presented by motion for reconsideration, there had to be some new facts that did not exist or could not have been discovered at the time of the original decision. The Third Circuit agreed with the district court that the insured’s efforts in this regard failed, as the facts she wanted to adduce were not new.

  3. The insured failed to request certain documents in discovery, e.g., the insurer’s Best Practices Manual, and gave no justification. Further, the Rule 26(f) report revealed early on the insurer’s position about the lower limit in the application controlling the UIM policy limits.  Thus, there was no basis for reconsideration involving discovery activities.

  4. In bringing and pursuing her case, the insured did not argue the insurer acted in bad faith on the basis of misrepresenting the scope of coverage, even though she had information allegedly supporting such a claim before trial. Rather, she “chose instead to base [the] bad faith claim on an alleged failure … to investigate the [insured’s] claim.” The court would not allow the insured belatedly to bring up the misrepresentation based claim, finding there should be no second bite at the apple.

  5. The Third Circuit observed that an insurer can defeat a bad faith claim if there “is evidence of a reasonable basis for the insurer’s actions or inaction.” In this case, the insurer believed the application constituted a sufficient writing under section 1734 to reduce UIM coverage limits. The Third Circuit found the insurer’s belief, “not only reasonable but correct.” Thus, its “reliance on the lower UM/UIM coverage limits in informing its investigation and settlement offers was therefore not deceptive.”

Date of Decision:  April 8, 2021

Gibson v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 20-1589, 2021 WL 1310777 (3d Cir. Apr. 8, 2021) (Hardiman, Pratter, Roth, JJ.)

NO BAD FAITH WHERE “RED FLAGS” EXISTED THAT COULD UNDERMINE COVERAGE; RULE TO FILE COMPLAINT NOT BAD FAITH (Middle District)

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This case involved an auto accident death, and whether the deceased was an insured “family member” under his stepfather’s auto policy.  Coverage depends on whether the deceased resided with the named insured/step-father at the time of the accident.  The stepfather brought breach of contract and bad faith claims, on behalf of his stepson’s estate.

The court denied summary judgment to both parties on the coverage issues, as material facts remained open on the coverage issued.  As Judge Mannion states, “[i]n short, there exist too many disputed material facts as to whether [the stepson] was a ‘family member’ of plaintiff’s household at the time of the accident.”

The court did grant the insurer summary judgment on the bad faith claim, as plaintiff could not meet the clear and convincing evidence standard necessary to prove bad faith.

Judge Mannion observed that during its investigation, the insurer discovered that the stepson might not have met the definition of “family member” under the policy.  There were statements from two people that the stepson with living with his girlfriend and her mother, not the stepfather; that the stepfather had removed the stepson from the policy at issue; and that the deceased had purchased his own vehicle with its own insurance policy, and that policy had an address other than the stepfather’s address at the time of the accident.

While the stepson’s driver’s license and tax returns did indicate he resided with his stepfather, the insurer “certainly had sufficient evidence that showed [the stepson’s] physical residence was at [the girlfriend’s] house.”

Red flags oblige the insurer to investigate thoroughly

Looking at all the circumstances, Judge Mannion observed that “[u]nder Pennsylvania law, insurers are permitted to ‘conduct a thorough investigation’ of a questionable claim without acting in bad faith”, and “[w]here an insurer sees red flags’ that cause concern of insurance fraud and prompt an investigation, the insurer has a reasonable basis for investigation, and is therefore not liable for claims of bad faith.”  Here, the insurer “had more than a reasonable basis to investigate where [the stepson] was really residing at the time of the accident since it had ample evidence to show that he may have moved out of plaintiff’s house months before the accident.”

Under these circumstances, the insurer was “entitled to conduct its own investigation and its finding that [the stepson] was not residing with plaintiff and was not a covered family member as defined in plaintiff’s Policy was reasonably based on evidence it uncovered. Thus, defendant’s denial [of] plaintiff’s UIM claim made on behalf of [the stepson’s] Estate was not an act in reckless disregard of its obligations under plaintiff’s Policy.”

Rule to file a complaint not bad faith

The court also rejected the notion that the insurer acted “outrageously” in filing a rule to file a complaint, after plaintiff had initiated the action by way of writ of summons.  The insurer sought to have a complaint filed because it lacked information, and “instructed plaintiff to file a complaint so that it could develop the facts as to [the stepson’s] residence.” Judge Mannion added, “[i]ndeed, as defendant points out, the court held in Fabrikant v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., [a summary of which can be found here] …. that ‘an insurer’s exercising its procedural right to serve a Rule to File Complaint is not bad faith, absent a showing of clear and convincing evidence that such action was taken in bad faith.’” Here the insurer “was obliged to investigate where [the deceased] was physically residing at the time of the accident in order to properly consider plaintiff’s UIM claim, especially since there was evidence that his residence was at [another] house.” [Emphasis added]

Date of Decision:  April 1, 2021

Fuentes v. USAA General Indemnity Co., U.S. District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania, No. CV 3:19-1111, 2021 WL 1225934 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 1, 2021) (Mannion, J.)

THIRD CIRCUIT AFFIRMS IN CASE WHERE DISTRICT COURT FOUND NO BAD FAITH WHERE NO COVERAGE DUE (Third Circuit)

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The Third Circuit affirmed a Western District decision finding no UIM coverage due because the insured rejected stacking.  While not discussed in the appellate opinion, the trial court observed there could be no bad faith case if no coverage was due.  This point is not expressly addressed by the Third Circuit, but it did affirm on all claims, including bad faith.

A summary of the lower court’s decision can be found here.

Dunleavy v. Mid-Century Ins. Co., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit No. 20-2100, 2021 WL 1042981 (3d Cir. Mar. 18, 2021) (Matey, Schwartz, Traxler, JJ.)

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.)

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)

INSURER NOT REQUIRED TO PRODUCE PERSONNEL FILE, BUT IS REQUIRED TO (1) PROVIDE CORPORATE DESIGNEE FOR DEPOSITION, (2) PRODUCE MANUALS AND TRAINING MATERIALS WITHIN CERTAIN TIME/GEOGRAPHIC LIMITS, AND (3) PROVIDE CLAIMS FILES TO THE COURT FOR IN CAMERA REVIEW ON PRIVILEGE AND WORK PRODUCT (Philadelphia Federal)

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The instant dispute involves the depositions of the claims handler and a corporate designee, as well as the scope of document discovery. The insurer made extensive objections to document requests accompanying the notices of deposition, and the any deposition of a corporate designee.  These are described in detail below.

This UIM bad faith case survived an earlier motion to dismiss, and was now proceeding on the merits before Magistrate Judge Perkin.  (Judge Leeson’s 2020 decision allowing the case to proceed is summarized here.)

General Discovery Principles

Magistrate Judge Perkin set out the basic principles guiding his decision:

  1. Rule 26 allows parties to “obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case[.]”

  2. “Relevance is a broad concept that encompass[es] any matter that bears on, or that reasonably could lead to other matter that could bear on, any issue that is or may be in the case.”

  3. “As an initial matter, therefore, all relevant material is discoverable unless an applicable evidentiary privilege is asserted. The presumption that such matter is discoverable, however, is defeasible.”

  4. “While the discovery rules are meant to be construed liberally, the responses sought [by a party] must comport with the traditional notions of relevancy and must not impose an undue burden on the responding party.”

  5. “To determine the scope of discoverable information under Rule 26(b)(1), the Court looks initially to the pleadings.”

  6. “In deciding which materials are discoverable and which are not, a district court must further distinguish between requests that ‘appear[ ] reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence’ … and demands that are ‘overly broad and unduly burdensome.’”

Documents Requested in Connection with the Claim Handler’s Deposition

The insured did not object to the claim handler’s deposition, but did make multiple objections to the document requests accompanying the notice of deposition.

Manuals and Training Documents Subject to Limited Discovery

Plaintiff’s first request was for “[a]ny and all documents, policies, procedures, rules, regulations, manuals, training documents, or other documents or things relevant to the handling and/or evaluation of Underinsured Motorists claims during the period of 2015-2020.”

Plaintiff’s second request was for “[a] true and correct copy of the complete “Claims Manual/Claims Office Manual” or other such similar document(s) by whatever name or title used by Defendants for the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

Plaintiff’s third request was for “[a] true and correct copy of the complete “Training Manual” or other such similar document(s) by whatever name or title used by Defendant for the purpose of training its employees in the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits claims for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

Plaintiff’s fourth request was for “[t]rue and correct copies of any and all claims bulletins, internal memoranda, letters, notices, or similar documents sent by management to the claims staff relating to the handling of Underinsured Motorists benefits claims for the years 2015 through and including 2020.”

The court found the first request relevant to both the breach of contract and bad faith claims, specifically ruling that manuals and other training materials are relevant to bad faith claims “where they contain instructions concerning procedures used by employees in processing claims.” Magistrate Judge Perkin added that “[t]raining materials ‘relevant to processing the claim in question’ are discoverable, as they may show, inter alia, ‘that agents of an insurance company recklessly disregarded standard interpretations of a particular contractual provision in denying coverage or deliberatively omitted certain investigatory steps.’”

However, Magistrate Judge Perkin agreed with the insurer that plaintiff’s requests were “overly broad in time, and should be limited to the period from when Defendant was first on notice of a UIM claim through the present.” First notice was when the insurer received correspondence from Plaintiff’s counsel informing Defendant of an anticipated underinsured motorist claim.

Magistrate Judge Perkin limited the geographic scope as well, “to those documents and materials governing underinsured motorist claims in Pennsylvania,” where the underlying accident occurred, where plaintiff resided, and the policy provided for UIM benefits under Pennsylvania law.

Magistrate Judge Perkin rejected the argument that the materials were trade secrets or proprietary in nature, pointing out there was no showing made to this effect but only “bare allegations that the information requested falls under this definition” which were insufficient “to protect such information from discovery.”

The court used the same analysis to address document requests 2-4.

Court Permits Discovery, with Limitations, of Claim Handling and Investigation Files

Plaintiff requested “[t]rue and correct copies of any and all letters, correspondence, documents, reports, or other records which relate to review, evaluation, and/or assessment of the causation or lack thereof of Plaintiff’s injuries following the underlying motor vehicle accident which was relied upon in the handling, assessment, investigation, and/or evaluation of Plaintiff’s UIM claim.”

Plaintiff also requested “[a]ny and all claims, notes, correspondence, records, recordings, documents, letters, phone logs, emails, or other communication writings or things pertaining to [the claim] from October 12, 2016 through present.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin observed that “an insurer, is not permitted to shield the discovery of its entire claims handling and investigation under the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine by hiring an attorney to perform its services. As Plaintiff noted in her brief, a bad faith claim may include “evidence of the insurer’s bad faith that occurred after the filing of the complaint.” The court reviewed the insurer’s privilege log and redacted documents, but could not determine whether the attorney-client privilege or work product doctrine actually applied. Thus, Magistrate Judge Perkin ordered the insurer to make the full documents available for in camera review, including “internal file notes regarding communications with legal counsel … ; UIM strategy and evaluation; claim handling[;] Amount of reserves and legal expenses on the UIM and Medical Payment claims[;] … Evaluation Report for Plaintiff’s UIM claim [;] … internal emails regarding receipt of this lawsuit, and assignment to legal counsel … [;] ISO Claim Search report[; and] Asset report regarding [the tortfeasor driver], for consent to settle/waiver of UIM subrogation purposes[.]”

The second request quoted above was also subject to in camera review for the same reasons. The court added that “[t]o the extent that Defendant maintains any of the requested material outside of the web-based system, it shall produce such information immediately to Plaintiff unless it is appropriately protected by a privilege.”

These were limited to the time period from the date the insurer first had notice, as described above.

The insurer also requested “[a]ny and all claim files concerning Plaintiff’s claim for underinsured motorist benefits, in paper, electronic, and/or other available format.” Magistrate Judge Perkin ruled that “[a]s with the previous two requests, this Court will conduct an in camera review to determine if Defendant properly withheld documents related to this request. Defendant is not required to perform forensic investigation into its computing devices or systems to locate information existing prior to when Defendant’s duty to preserve evidence arose which is no longer accessible. Similarly, Defendant does not need to produce the same ESI in more than one form. Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(b)(2)(E)(iii). If Defendant maintains any information responsive to the above request in non-electronic forms, it shall produce such information immediately to Plaintiff unless it duplicative of what has already been produced or properly protected by a privilege.” [Emphasis in original]

Insurer not Compelled to Produce Personnel Files

The insured requested “[p]ersonnel file, including applications for employment, evaluations, awards, commendations, complaints, reprimands, resumes, attendance records for the period of 2016-2018, tests, performance appraisals, documents reflecting job performance and/or employee conduct, letters of commendation, reprimands, letters of termination, personnel action notices, investigative files and reports concerning or substantially concerning [the specific] Claims Specialist, only.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin ruled “[t]he request for personnel information implicates the strong public policy against disclosure of such materials.” Thus, “[w]hile information relating to [the claim handler’s] employment and job performance may be relevant to Plaintiff’s bad faith claim, Plaintiff may learn this information through less invasive means, such as by deposition or interrogatory. … Accordingly, while Plaintiff may obtain the employment information it seeks by deposing [the claim handler], or through interrogatories, Defendant is not compelled to produce the materials relating to the above request.”

Deposition of Corporate Designee Permitted

The court observed that corporate designees are called to testify about their personal knowledge only, but also to speak for the corporation “about matters to which the corporation has reasonable access.” In this case, the insured’s bad faith claim included allegations beyond valuation, “but also claims that defendant mishandled, failed to properly investigate and evaluate the claim and otherwise acted in bad faith.” Plaintiff wanted the 30(b)(6) designee “to represent the collective knowledge of the corporation and to present its positions on certain topics [,] including … “the manner and method of how Defendant instructs, advises, directs, and incentivizes its employees to handle claims is directly related to what, if anything, the adjuster(s) did in handling this claim and why.”

Magistrate Judge Perkin refused to quash the corporate designee’s deposition, finding the insured was “entitled to depose the corporate representative and obtain an official explanation of the claims-handling policies used by” the insurer.

He did not, however, stop there.  Rather, Magistrate Judge Perkin addressed objections to individual matters designated for examination and individual document requests accompanying the subpoena.

  1. “1st Matter for Examination: The thoughts, analysis, evaluation(s), rationale(s), investigation, actions, research, review, and reasoning of the handling adjuster’s supervisor at Defendant insurance company who personally participated in the decision to offer $6,000 on or about October 25, 2019, to resolve Plaintiff’s claim. (The term “participated” as used in this paragraph includes, without limitation, reviewed any documents, analyzed and/or discussed the matter with anyone, approved the offer of compromise or provided any information or input whatsoever into the decision).”

Magistrate Judge Perkin reserved ruling on this area of examination until after he had conducted the in camera review described above.

  1. “2nd Matter for Examination: The existence and content of any writings, files, procedures, claims-handling procedures, guidelines, claims manuals, or documents of any kind including any material contained in any computer which existed at any time from 2015 to the present, applicable to the handling and adjustment of Plaintiff’s claim.”

Magistrate Judge Pekin permitted this area of examination, to allow for questioning on “[t]he existence and content of any writings, files, procedures, claims-handling procedures, guidelines, claims manuals, or documents of any kind which existed from March 16, 2017 through 2020, applicable to the handling and adjustment of Plaintiff’s claim.”

  1. “3rd Matter for Examination: Defendant’s claims handling manuals, guidelines, or any other documents used to instruct personnel on the claims handling and/or adjustment practice used by State Farm to instruct/train/educate/direct or otherwise teach its claims adjusters to adjust first-party Underinsured Motorists (“UIM”) claims as of October 1, 2015.”

The court found this area of questioning relevant, within time and geographic limits, stating “[d]efendant’s claims handling manuals, guidelines, or any other documents used to instruct personnel on the claims handling and/or adjustment practice used by [the insurer] to instruct/train/educate/direct or otherwise teach its claims adjusters to adjust first-party Underinsured Motorists (“UIM”) claims in Pennsylvania from March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “4th Matter for Examination: State Farm’s policy, practice and procedure for promotion of claims representatives and/or adjusters within State Farm as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

The court found the insurer’s “policies, practices, and procedures for promotions of claims representatives and adjusters is relevant to its claim of bad faith. To the extent that there are employee incentives to close out insureds’ claims, or handle claims in a particular manner, such information could reveal facts relevant to the motivations of the employees who handled Plaintiff’s claim.” Discovery was thus allowed, within a limited time frame.

  1. “5th Matter for Examination: Defendant’s training materials, practices, and procedures for claims adjusters handling UIM claims as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

The court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Defendant’s training materials, practices, and procedures for claims adjusters handling UIM claims in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “6th Matter for Examination: Defendant’s methods, policies, procedures, and practices used to calculate the value of damages in a UIM claim as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Defendant’s methods, policies, procedures, and practices used to calculate the value of damages in a UIM claim in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “7th Matter for Examination: Any and all materials provided to claims adjusters handling UIM claims for the purpose of training claims adjusters and/or representatives as to calculating, evaluation, assessing, and determining value of damages as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “Any and all materials provided to claims adjusters handling UIM claims in Pennsylvania for the purpose of training claims adjusters and/or representatives as to calculating, evaluation, assessing, and determining value of damages as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

  1. “8th Matter for Examination: The policies and procedures for evaluating, assessing, and investigating personal injuries to an insured in a UIM claim as of October 1, 2015 through the present.”

Again, the court permitted discovery within time and geographic limits, “The policies and procedures for evaluating, assessing, and investigating personal injuries to an insured in a UIM claim in Pennsylvania as of March 16, 2017 through 2020.”

The court next addressed the document requests accompanying the corporate designee’s notice of deposition.

  1. “Request 1: Any and all claims manuals, reference materials, training manuals, and/or guidelines for interpretation of the relevant insurance policy.”

Following his analysis in addressing the document requests accompanying the claim handler’s notice of deposition, Magistrate Judge Perkin found the request relevant to the bad faith claim, within the limited time period.  To the extent the response would be identical to the other request, however, he would not require a separate production; rather, the defendant could cross reference that earlier production to bates numbers.

  1. “Request 2: Any and all documents, materials, manuals, guides, claims manuals, handbooks, training materials or other items relating to the topics set forth above.”

Again following the same request to the claim handler, the documents were relevant to the bad faith claim within a limited time period, and the same process of cross-referencing to bates numbers could be followed.

  1. “Request 3: The personnel files of all company employees who worked on Plaintiff’s UIM claim.”

Again following the earlier analysis, the insurer was not required to produce written materials, leaving the insured to pursue that employment information through the deposition or interrogatories.

Date of Decision:  January 22, 2021

SOLANO-SANCHEZ v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTO INSURANCE COMPANY, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 19-4016, 2021 WL 229400 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 22, 2021) (Perkin, M.J.)

JUDGE BAYLSON DISMISSES STATUTORY BAD FAITH CLAIM ONLY SUPPORTED BY CONCLUSORY ALLEGATIONS (Philadelphia Federal)

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In this case, like many others in the recent past, the UIM bad faith claims are dismissed with leave to amend.

The tortfeasor’s carrier payed the injured insured its $15,000 policy.  The insured had $100,000 in UIM coverage from her own carrier.  In seeking UIM coverage, the insured provided her carrier with “documentation of her losses including medical bills and other economic losses totaling more than $34,263.47.” In bringing breach of contract and bad faith claims, she alleges her carrier refused to make any “bona-fide good faith offers of settlement to the Plaintiff that contemplate those substantiated and verified losses and to the contrary, has made no offer for purposes of resolving Plaintiff’s Underinsured Motorist’s Claim.”

The insurer moved to dismiss the statutory bad faith claim on the basis the insured only pleaded conclusory allegations. In response, the insured argued her complaint included allegations “that (1) she promptly provided Defendant with proof of the amount of her damages, (2) Defendant has refused to make a settlement offer, (3) Plaintiff provided additional medical documentation at Defendant’s request, and that (4) Defendant has had “ample time to properly evaluate Plaintiff’s claim.” As he has in other cases, Eastern District Judge Baylson dismissed the bad faith claim, without prejudice.

Judge Baylson cited his prior opinions in Eley (2011) and Kelly (2019) in holding the instant allegations merely conclusory, lacking in the kind of factual detail that could support a plausible bad faith claim. He finds the insured did not provide “any explanation of how Defendant responded to her claim, or what facts, beyond its failure to pay her claim, indicate bad faith. The fact that she provided Defendant with supporting documents regarding her claim does not alone indicate bad faith. Plaintiff has not provided any information regarding Defendant’s response to her claim. She has simply stated that she considers any response on its part to be unsatisfactory.”

In granting the motion to dismiss without prejudice, Judge Baylson observed that the insurer only sought dismissal of the insured’s statutory bad faith claim. Thus, this dismissal did not affect any other portions of the complaint.

Date of Decision:  January 15, 2021

Baxley v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. CV 20-5512, 2021 WL 149256 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 15, 2021) (Baylson, J.)

Note: It is only the beginning of the fourth full week in January, but this is our fifth UIM case posted to date this year.

NO BAD FAITH FOR EVEN NEGLIGENT CLAIM HANDLING, AND WHERE INSURER’S POSITION WAS SUPPORTED BY AN EXPERT (Philadelphia Federal)

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This UIM bad faith case had survived a motion to dismiss, but summary judgment ended the plaintiff’s bad faith claim.

Eastern District Judge Leeson had originally allowed the bad faith claim to proceed, as plaintiff had alleged more than a valuation dispute.  Our prior blog post can be found here.

The present bad faith summary judgment motion was before Magistrate Judge Perkin. His opinion goes through the claim handling history in minute detail.  Among other things, it shows nearly a year passed before the insured provided the claim handlers with all medical records and details on the specific injuries for which he was seeking full UIM policy limits.  The record shows the insurer assigned a specialist in medical resources (SMR) to review the medical file, and later had a medical examination performed by a physician. Discovery appeared to show potential errors in the SMR’s evaluation.

Based on the medical reviews, the insurer had not paid its full UIM limits, as plaintiff demanded, at the time suit was filed.  The insured challenged the conclusions of both the SMR and the physician on the origin and scope of his injuries in bringing the bad faith claim.

Magistrate Judge Perkin observed that an “insurance company need not show that the process used to reach its conclusion was flawless or that its investigatory methods eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusions. Rather, an insurance company simply must show that it conducted a review or investigation sufficiently thorough to yield a reasonable foundation for its action.”  Thus, “[e]ven if Defendant’s claims-handling processes were not ideal, there is no evidence in the record, let alone clear and convincing evidence, to indicate that Defendant’s purported mishandling of Plaintiff’s claim was motivated by a dishonest purpose or ill will.”

Citing older case law, the court states, “while under Pennsylvania law bad faith may extend to an insurer’s investigation and other conduct in handling the claim, that conduct must ‘import a dishonest purpose.’” “Invariably, this requires that the insurer lack a reasonable basis for denying coverage, as mere negligence or aggressive protection of an insurer’s interests is not bad faith.”

[Note: In 2017, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court made clear in Rancosky that “we hold that proof of an insurance company’s motive of self-interest or ill-will is not a prerequisite to prevailing in a bad faith claim under Section 8371, as argued by Appellant. While such evidence is probative of the second Terletsky prong, we hold that evidence of the insurer’s knowledge or recklessness as to its lack of a reasonable basis in denying policy benefits is sufficient.” A link to our Rancosky summary can be found here.]

Applying this law to the facts, Magistrate Judge Perkin found that “[a]lthough the plaintiff disagrees with the conclusions of both [the SMR and the carrier’s physician], it is clear that [the carrier] had a reasonable basis to value the claim based, at a minimum, on [the physician’s] report.” Assuming that the SMR “performed an insufficient and incorrect medical review of Plaintiff’s case, Defendant did not deny Plaintiff’s claim based upon that review, but rather continued its investigation of Plaintiff’s claim. Moreover, it is not apparent on the record that Defendant has ever denied coverage to Plaintiff.”

As to how the insurer handled the various bodily injury claims, the plaintiff’s doctors had sourced these all to the auto accident at issue, while the carrier’s physician only identified some of these injuries as being caused by the accident. Thus, Magistrate Judge Perkin found:

“Similarly, the fact that the plaintiff’s experts relate all of the plaintiff’s right knee and left ankle complaints to the accident does not provide a basis for bad faith. Defendant retained [an] orthopedic surgeon … to perform an independent medical examination and records review. After completing same, [defendant’s surgeon] concluded that that only the plaintiff’s initial meniscal tear and resultant arthroscopic surgery were related to the accident. None of the plaintiff’s left ankle complaints/treatments, or additional right knee treatment, was accident-related. Accordingly, [the carrier] had a reasonable basis for its claim handling.”

Date of Decision:  January 13, 2021

Perez-Garcia v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. CV 18-3783, 2021 WL 131343 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 13, 2021) (Perkin, M.J.)