DECEMBER 2018 BAD FAITH CASES: BAD FAITH CLAIMS STATED BASED ON UNREASONABLE INTERPRETATION OF POLICY EXCLUSIONS, AND PURSUIT OF DECLARATORY JUDGMENT PROCESS BEFORE ULTIMATELY SETTLING (Western District)
The underlying suit involved negligence claims concerning a sexual assault by the insured’s father against others. The insurer defended under a reservation of rights, and brought a federal declaratory judgment action against the insured. The insured brought a declaratory judgment action in state court, and successfully had the federal claim dismissed on procedural grounds.
The insurer counterclaimed for declaratory judgment in state court, and filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, which was denied. The insurer appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, and the appeal was quashed as interlocutory. The underlying action subsequently settled, and the declaratory judgment action was dismissed as moot.
The insured sued for common law contractual bad faith and statutory bad faith, and the insurer’s motion for judgment on the pleadings was denied.
The insured argued the reservation of rights letters were “manipulative”, that the insurer delayed settling the underlying action to improve its negotiating position, and that the insured suffered emotional distress and the expenses of having to bring and defend the declaratory judgment actions. The insured alleged the coverage positions were reckless or unwarranted, the appeal was unwarranted, and claim handling concerning coverage was unreasonable, inadequate, and was in conflict with the insured’s interests.
CONTRACTUAL BAD FAITH
The court first addressed the contractual bad faith claims. It observed that issuing reservation of rights letters is accepted practice, and that courts encourage the use of declaratory judgment actions.
However, bad faith allegations may be sufficient, even if policy limits are ultimately paid, where delaying resolution prejudiced the insured, and the insured pleads the insurer: (i) failed to conduct a complete and thorough factual or legal investigation; (ii) refused to enter good faith settlement negotiations; (iii) conducted “surface” settlement negotiations with no intent to settle; (iv) rejected settlement demands without counterproposals; or (v) pursued declaratory judgment actions with no reasonable basis, for an unreasonable time period.
In this case, the insured’s complaint put the investigation’s thoroughness at issue. Likewise, the exclusions the insurer relied upon, and propriety of settling the underlying case only after two years of actively pursuing the declaratory judgment action, were “unsettled questions of fact” on the bad faith claim. The court concluded: “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to [plaintiff], a reasonable jury could find that [the insurer’s] actions, in the aggregate, constituted a bad faith breach of its contractual duties … and could lead that jury to return a verdict in [plaintiff’s] favor.”
STATUTORY BAD FAITH
The court observed that statutory bad faith is not measured by whether an insurer ultimately fulfills its obligations. If payment is due and ultimately made, bad faith during the claim handling process in delaying that payment may be actionable. This is similar to a contractual bad faith claim where the court looks at the manner in which an insurer discharges its duties to the insured when payment is due, but that payment is delayed.
As the court was obliged to take the pleadings in the light most favorable to the insured in deciding a judgment on the pleadings, the complaint was sufficient. On the facts pleaded, a reasonable jury could conclude the alleged failures in investigation and claims handling were motivated by self-interest, despite the insurer’s ultimately settling the underlying case.
Date of Decision: November 27, 2018
Higginbotham v. Liberty Ins. Corp., U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Civil Action No. 18-747, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 199836, 2018 WL 6179024 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 27, 2018) (Mitchell, M.J.)