NO BAD FAITH FOR FAILURE TO LEARN ABOUT OTHER INSURANCE COVERAGE NOT DISCLOSED BY THE INSURED, OR IN ACTIVE CLAIM HANDLING THAT ONLY RESULTED IN A VALUATION DISPUTE (Western District)

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The injured plaintiff had UIM insurance stacked for four vehicles. With stacking, this UIM coverage amounted to $60,000. The insured agreed to settle his claim for $50,000.

After that settlement, the plaintiff brought to the carrier’s attention that his stepson also had an auto policy with the same carrier. Plaintiff took the position that he was an insured under the stepson’s policy as they resided in the same household. If true, this would considerably increase potential UIM coverage from $60,000 to $160,000.

The stepson’s policy, however, listed a different home address. The stepfather told this carrier this was not accurate and an investigation into the stepson’s address ensued.  The carrier ultimately agreed to the additional $100,000 in available UIM coverage, but did not find a factual basis to increase the $50,000 paid to settle the case.

The Insurer’s Claim Handling Concerning Valuation

The court accepted the carrier’s factual recitations from the record. The insured twice agreed with the carrier on the claim’s value, only later to change course and increase his demand.  Instead of arguing over these reversals, the carrier “re-opened, re-evaluated and continued to negotiate with Plaintiff in a prompt and reasonable manner.” Moreover, the carrier did so “despite [the plaintiff’s] repeated refusal for over a year to participate in an SUO [statement under oath], and resistance to providing authorizations for the release of medical records, both of which are investigative tools to which [the insurer] is contractually entitled.”

The court also agreed the insured only gave the carrier “unreasonably small windows of time to respond to his demands, and refused to grant any extensions. … Nevertheless, [the insurer] continued to work with Plaintiff and to explain to him what [the insurer] needed, why [the insurer] needed it, and the basis for [its] determinations regarding his claim.”

The insurer obtained an independent medical examination, years after the injury, from which it concluded there was no basis to increase the settlement sum.  This evaluation was done at a time when the insured repeatedly said he was going in for additional surgery, and this was a basis to increase the claim’s value. As of the time the record was created in the case, however, this surgery had not taken place.

Judge Cercone stated the insurer “reasonably valued Plaintiffs UIM claim … and reasonably took the position that, if Plaintiff did in fact undergo surgery, the claim could be again be re-evaluated at that time.”

Alleged Failure to Determine the Stepson’s Address

The bad faith claim focused on the insurer’s alleged failure to disclose the insured was also covered under the stepson’s policy, as well as his own policy. This in turn boiled down to where the stepson actually resided at the time of the accident at issue, and what information the insurer had about the stepson’s residence in underwriting the stepson’s auto policy.

The record shows the stepson used his biological’s father’s home address in applying for insurance, not his stepfather’s address. Further, there was nothing on the face of the stepson’s underwriting file to indicate the stepson resided with plaintiff and not his biological father. After considerable investigation, the insurer did agree plaintiff was an insured under the stepson’s policy, thus accepting that the stepson in fact resided with plaintiff and not his biological father.  As stated above, however, the insurer refused to increase its settlement sum pending any actual additional surgery and an evaluation thereof.

Bad Faith Analysis

The insured sued for breach of contract and bad faith. The bad faith claim was based on the notion that it was the carrier, not the stepfather, that had a duty to disclose the additional $100,000 in coverage under the stepson’s policy. Thus, the plaintiff alleged the carrier misled the stepfather-insured into thinking there was only $60,000 in coverage, and this created a basis for a statutory bad faith recovery.

The insurer successfully moved for summary judgment on this bad faith claim.

Judge Cercone found “[t]he matter presented to defendant and this court falls far short on the showing needed to permit the finder of fact to arrive at a finding of bad faith.” The stepfather did nothing more than insinuate the carrier: (1) should have been more astute in determining the stepson’s actual address, (2) questioned the stepson on his address, (3) discovered inconsistencies in his address, which (4) “would have and should have detected that [stepson] lived with plaintiffs,” and then (5) would have necessarily resulted in the carrier realizing that the stepson’s policy should have been added to the stepfather’s applicable policy limits.

The court rejected this speculative narrative as falling far short of the kind of reckless or intentional misconduct needed to prove bad faith. The putative failure to uncover the extra $100,000 in coverage was at most negligent, and “an insurer’s mere negligence or bad judgment is not bad faith.”

Moreover, the court clearly did not believe there was even negligence in this case. Judge Cercone described plaintiff’s effort to convert the stepson’s underwriting history “into an unfounded and unreasonable basis for failing to detect [stepson’s] actual residence [as] nothing more than an attempt to insinuate an evidentiary basis for a finding of bad faith.” The plaintiff failed to identify any procedure the carrier failed to follow in concluding the stepson’s address to be with his biological father, which was the address submitted by the stepson and his biological father when originally obtaining the policy, and the address used on the policy.

The court described the case as actually boiling down to a valuation dispute.

As described above, the insurer’s claims handling was reasonable. It considered multiple demands to reevaluate the claim, even after settlement. It also agreed to the additional $100,000 in coverage limits “without meaningful delay once [stepson’s] actual address … was made known … and it verified…”

Judge Cercone states, “[a]gainst this backdrop it is rank speculation to infer that the [insurer’s] principals involved here engaged in a course of conduct with the intent to promote [the insurer’s] financial interest over its fiduciary obligations to plaintiffs, or that they recklessly pursued a course of conduct that had the ability to do so. As noted above, plaintiffs’ attempts to establish the lack of good faith fall woefully short of the mark and are insufficient.” Nothing was identified in the insurer’s claim handling that “even remotely raises a specter of self-dealing.”

Judge Cercone found “no evidence whatsoever that defendant did not investigate, valuate and negotiate with plaintiffs in good faith or stopped doing so during the adjustment process.”

In summing up, Judge Cercone states:

In short, plaintiffs have failed to advance sufficient evidence to permit a finding in their favor on a bad faith insurance practices claim. Plaintiffs’ evidence pertaining to defendant’s failure to uncover [stepson’s] policy during a search for household policy holders in conjunction with [plaintiff’s] UIM claim cannot bear the weight plaintiffs seek to have it shoulder. [The insurer] straightforwardly requested plaintiffs to identify the automobiles owed by any family member residing in their household. They did not identify or even allude to [stepson] and his motor vehicle when so requested. The evidence reflecting the address used in issuing [stepson’s] policy has every appearance of being consistent with honoring the representations and billing requests of its insureds and does not in any event supply clear and convincing evidence that defendant engaged in self-dealing or other similar measures in order to thwart its good faith obligations in adjusting and negotiating [plaintiff’s] UIM claim.”

Date of Decision: November 30, 2020

Bogats v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania No. 2:18CV708, 2020 WL 7027480 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 30, 2020) (Cercone, J.)

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