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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date of Decision:  July 14, 2021

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

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