This exhaustive opinion on discovery of extrinsic evidence sets forth a working standard for determining permissible discovery in declaratory judgment insurance coverage contract actions. After a detailed overview of pertinent case law and the 2015 rule amendments focusing on proportionality, the court held that “litigants who wish to discover extrinsic evidence in a contract interpretation case must (1) point to specific language in the agreement itself that is genuinely ambiguous or that extrinsic evidence is likely to render genuinely ambiguous; and (2) show that the requested extrinsic evidence is also likely to resolve the ambiguity without imposing unreasonable expense.”
In this case, the discovery sought did not fall within those aims and a motion to compel was denied.
To provide context by contrast, the court included an analysis of discovery in bad faith cases within its overall discussion. In instances where a plaintiff seeks underwriting files and claims manuals, the presence of a bad faith claim makes their “discoverability more likely, yet it by no means guarantees it.” In that context, “[t]he issue in a bad faith case is whether the insurer acted recklessly or with ill will towards the plaintiff in a particular case, not whether the defendants’ business practices were generally reasonable.”
By contrast, under Pennsylvania law, declaratory judgment actions for coverage are contract-based claims controlled by the express language in the contract, and the language of such integrated contracts will “often will suffice to dictate the proper outcome without reference to any external sources.”
To provide further contrast, the court looked at district court case law in the Third Circuit on stays, and severance of bad faith claims from coverage actions, where courts bifurcated the two claims and the different discovery related to them. These cases observe the differences between discovery and proof in bad faith cases and coverage cases, and that the coverage/contract claims can require less discovery in reaching resolution. [The court in this case had previously dismissed plaintiff’s bad faith claim].
Date of Decision: May 12, 2017
Westfield Insurance Company v. Icon Legacy Custom Modular Homes, No. 15-539, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 72624 (M.D. Pa. May 12, 2017) (Brann, J.)