NO BAD FAITH WHERE COVERAGE ISSUES FAIRLY DEBATABLE; NO PUNITIVE DAMAGES WHERE NO BAD FAITH; NO RIGHT TO ATTORNEY’S FEES IN DIRECT ACTION (New Jersey Federal)
The insurer filed a declaratory judgment action concerning first party property damage to a commercial building. The insureds counterclaimed for breach of contract and bad faith, and the insurer moved to dismiss the bad faith counterclaim.
Under New Jersey law, “to establish a claim for bad faith in the insurance context, a [claimant] must show two elements: (1) the insurer lacked a ‘fairly debatable’ reason for its failure to pay a claim, and (2) the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded the lack of a reasonable basis for denying the claim.”
“To meet the ‘fairly debatable’ standard, a claimant must be able to establish, as a matter of law, a right to summary judgment on the substantive claim; if [claimant] cannot establish a right to summary judgment, the bad faith claim fails. In other words, if there are material issues of disputed fact which would preclude summary judgment as a matter of law, an insured cannot maintain a cause of action for bad faith.” “Thus, dismissal of the bad faith claim is proper when the insured cannot prevail on summary judgment for the underlying insurance claim.”
“[A] bad faith claim against the insurance company fails at the motion to dismiss stage if the claimant cannot establish a right to summary judgment on the substantive claim.”
The case involved an alleged partial building collapse. There were issues of fact as to what caused the collapse, the resolution of which were necessary to determine coverage under the policy. There were also issues concerning policy interpretation. The insureds took the position that the insurer’s policy interpretation position was irrelevant to bad faith, rather than arguing the insurer’s position was incorrect and taken in bad faith. The court found this argument fatal to the insured’s bad faith claim.
Moreover, the court concluded the insurer’s reading of the insurance policy provided a reasonable basis to deny the claims. It stated that denying benefits on the basis there was no coverage “is the ‘easiest to understand’ why the denial of insurance claims is ‘fairly debatable.’” Thus, the insureds failed to show the insurer lacked a fairly debatable reason to deny the claim. Further, “[b]ecause this deficiency cannot be cured by further amendment or through discovery, the Court dismisses Defendants’ claim for bad faith with prejudice.” (Emphasis in original)
The court also dismissed the insured’s punitive damages claim, with prejudice, stating “an insured who cannot state a claim for bad faith damages is necessarily unable to prevail on a claim for punitive damages under the higher standard of egregious circumstances.”
Finally, the court dismissed the claims for attorney’s fees and legal costs with prejudice, under either the contract or bad faith claims. “New Jersey law does not allow awards of attorney’s fees and costs ‘to an insured who brings direct suit against his insurer to enforce casualty or other direct coverage.’”