NEW JERSEY BAD FAITH CLAIM FAILS AS TO BOTH DENIAL AND CLAIM HANDLING DELAY (New Jersey Federal)
The insured successfully defeated a summary judgment motion on the issue of coverage, but lost on bad faith.
The policy excluded coverage for burst radiator pipes unless the insured took reasonable steps to maintain heat at the property to avoid the problem. Here, the 76-year old insured temporarily moved from his home so family could take care of him after double knee surgery. The record showed a detailed history of the insured’s considerable efforts to maintain heating in his absence, and a somewhat unpredictable set of circumstances leading to the local utility turning off his heat for a short time, which unfortunately led to burst pipes and flood damage in the home.
The record showed a jury could find the insured had taken reasonable steps to maintain the heat, and denied the insurer’s summary judgment motion seeking a ruling that no coverage was due. Thus, the breach of contract claim proceeded.
However, the court did grant the insurer’s motion on bad faith under the fairly debatable standard.
The court first observed New Jersey recognizes two forms of bad faith, either in denying or processing claims. As to the latter, processing focuses on delay in claim handling.
These two types of bad faith claims are subject to “’essentially the same’ test under New Jersey law, namely, the ‘fairly debatable’ standard.” “A bad faith denial claim succeeds when ‘no debatable reasons existed for denial of the benefits.’” “For a processing claim, bad faith is established when there is ‘no valid reason to delay and the insurance company knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that no valid reasons supported the delay.’” Merely mishandling a claim, however, is insufficient; rather there must be “knowledge that no reason [for denying the claim] existed’”.
In this case, the insured first argued bad faith denial. The court rejected that claim, observing:
“The policy at issue specifically precludes coverage for damage resulting from frozen pipes unless the insured maintained heat or shut off the water. Plaintiff admits to not shutting off the water. Moreover, the interruption of gas service to the house did result in heat not being maintained. Plaintiff left his house unattended for over a year, with no one checking in on the property, and the gas bills did show no gas usage, even though the bills also charged Plaintiff every month. Thus, while the question of reasonable care will be submitted to the jury, a reasonable factfinder could only find on this record that coverage was, indeed, fairly debatable.”
On the delay in processing theory, “Plaintiff claims that Defendants impermissibly focused on ‘the result’ rather than the ‘reasonable care’ exercised to ensure the house was heated. … However, bad faith process claims are typically grounded in an excessive delay, not the nature of the process itself … and it is undisputed that Defendants promptly responded to and investigated the claim. Indeed, the record shows that an investigation took place within days of the loss, and a final determination was issued exactly one month after the discovery of the loss.”