Faulty Construction Not Covered Loss Under Nationwide Builders’ Policy, Pa. Federal Judge Rules

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PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 16  — Two homebuilders insured by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company accused in an underlying lawsuit of poor workmanship are entitled to no coverage, U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson ruled earlier  this week, because such workmanship did not constitute a fortuitous  “occurrence” which would trigger coverage under the policy.

William Tierney III sued  Robert and Hannelore Bealer, owners of Affordable Homes for foundation cracks and water leakage problems they built for Tierney in Pennsylvania State Court.   The complaint alleged that a May 2014 flooding of the home’s basement was due to faulty construction.   In response to Bealers’ requests for defense and indemnity in that case, Nationwide declined, citing no triggering  occurrence under policy, despite the Bealers’ claims that the problems were actually caused by superseding events including heavy storms and shifting ground.

The Bealers sued Nationwide for coverage in 2015, and the suit was removed to Federal Court.

Judge  Baylson, citing Pennsylvania law requiring analysis of the underlying complaint only, found that Nationwide was within its rights to deny coverage under the language of the policy:

“The Bealers’ alternative explanation for the cause of Tierney’s property damage is outside the scope of this analysis because it is not pled in the underlying complaint. . . Tierney’s factual allegations are that a failure to properly design and construct the property caused the damage at issue. These are faulty workmanship claims, and the Bealers’ attempts to reframe them as based on an ‘occurrence’ due to the ‘degree of fortuity’ involved in the intervening factors that allegedly led to the damage, are unavailing.”

Bealer v. Nationwide (E.D. Pa., No. 16-3181, Nov. 16, 2016)(Baylson, J.)

Fraudulent Joinder of Lawyer Results In Denial of Remand Motion In Texas Bad Faith Case

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SAN ANTONIO, October 21  — A federal judge denied a motion to remand a breach of contract and bad faith lawsuit to state court, finding that the joinder of the attorney who represented the insureds in the underlying tort action  was not proper.

In Amanda Montoya, et al. v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., et al., No. 16-00005, W.D. Texas; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141322), U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth held that the joinder of  a lawyer retained by State Farm Insurance Company to represent their insured, Andrew Acosta,  did not defeat federal diversity jurisdiction.

Amanda and Deandra Montoya were injured in an automobile accident when their car was hit by Acosta.  Acosta and a passenger in his vehicle were killed.  State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. insured Acosta under a policy with limits of of $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident.  State Farm retained a lawyer, Jeff B. Frey, to represent Acosta’s estate.

Acosta’s lawyer settled for the policy limits with injured passengers, leaving the Montoyas with no access to the policy limits.  The Montoyas sued the Acosta estate in Bexar County, Texas, and obtained a verdict and judgment of $542,933.67.  The Montoyas took an assignment from the Acosta estate, and then sued State Farm, and the lawyer they retained, Frey, in state court for breach of contract and bad faith, as well as alleged breaches of the Texas Insurance Code and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). The Montoyas claimed Frey improperly settled the case with the passengers, and that he acted as a claims adjuster in doing so, naming him as a defendant in the bad faith and breach of contract case.

State Farm removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, and argued that Frey’s Texas’ citizenship did not defeat diversity because Frey was improperly joined.

The Montoyas filed a remand motion which was denied by Judge Lamberth, who held that Frey could not be a proper defendant as an “insurance adjuster”:

“the Montoyas articulated no facts in their original petition that Mr. Frey himself had the authority to finalize a settlement himself… Instead, they merely state that Mr. Frey was hired to ‘evaluate, negotiate, and/or finalize the multiple settlements arising out of the collision,’ and that ‘State Farm and their agent Jeff B. Frey proceeded with finalizing settlements without the knowledge of, and to the detriment of, Plaintiffs.’  Thus, the Montoyas failed to allege that Mr. Frey had the authority to settle these claims himself, and this Court need not decide whether an attorney appointed to represent an insured is analogous to an adjuster under the Texas Insurance Code.  Even if he is, there is no liability under Section 541.060(a)(2) absent the authority to settle.  Since Mr. Frey did not have authority to settle, there is no reasonable basis to predict the Montoyas might be able to recover against Mr. Frey for violations of Section 541.060(a)(2).”

The judge also ruled that there were no allegations made against Frey regarding misrepresentation of the policy:

“[t]here are no factual allegations against Mr. Frey for misrepresentations of the policy; the only allegations made against him concern his role in evaluating and settling claims. . . The Montoyas now suggest that the single reference to State Farm in the petition is sufficient to maintain a cause of action against Mr. Frey as State Farm’s agent.  But ‘threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements’ do not satisfy Rule 12(b)(6).  The conclusory statement that State Farm was liable under § 541.061 was unsupported by any factual allegations against Mr. Frey specifically.  Thus, the Montoyas have not even stated a claim against Mr. Frey under § 541.061.”

 Amanda Montoya, et al. v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., et al., No. 16-00005, W.D. Texas; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141322

Bad Faith Claim Satisfies Federal Amount In Controversy Requirement

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PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 28 – A federal judge has denied a remand request in a removed action against Omni Insurance company, holding that while the amount of the coverage claim was only $28,000.00, a bad faith claim also in the suit satisfied the $75,000.00 jurisdictional amount.

Plaintiff Richard Duncan originally sued a motorist insured by Omni Insurance arising out of an automobile accident.  Omni denied its insured defense and indemnity on grounds of an unlicensed driver exclusion in the applicable policy.

Duncan won $28,000.00 in an arbitration against Omni’s insured who, after the award, assigned all rights it had against Omni to Duncan.  Duncan then filed coverage and bad faith claims against Omni in Philadelphia County, seeking the amount of the arbitration award, along with bad faith damages.  Omni removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pa., and Duncan moved to remand the case.

Eastern District Judge Harvey Bartle, III denied the remand motion, citing the 3rd Circuit precedent requiring reasonable reading of pleadings to determine amount in controversy, and holding:

“Because of the bad faith claim, we deem the amount in controversy requirement to have been met.”

Judge Bartle also granted summary judgment to Omni on the merits in the case, finding that the unlicensed driver exclusion was not void as against public policy, and that it barred coverage for the underlying loss.

Duncan v. Omni Insurance Company, CIVIL ACTION NO. 16-1489, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133134 (E. D. Pa., Sept. 28, 2016)

 

Adapt or Die

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In yesterday’s edition of Law360.com, former McKesson in house lawyer Jill Dessalines wrote an excellent piece on the Corporate Demand for Value from outside law firms.  In the article, entitled, “Adapt Or Die: Law Firms In Tomorrow’s Economy,” Dessalines says that while the billable hour is still here, “it is gasping for breath and failing fast.”

Dessalines writes about the truth many old-line outside firms try to ignore about the billable hour:

“The problem is not just that it encourages inefficiency — like paying a kid to pull weeds in your yard by the hour rather than by the job. The problem is not just that it rewards quantity over quality. No, the essential problem… is that it is disconnected from the value of services rendered. For the corporate client, who by definition measures success and failure based on the value delivered to its bottom line, this disconnect is unfathomable.

Unfathomable.  That is pretty strong language from a lawyer who has had to purchase the services of outside firms and at the same time  remain accountable to her corporate client.  Unfathomable.  For outside firms to ignore that disconnect any longer is to ignore the need to adapt or die.

Dessalines points out that historically, the billable hour was a function of recapturing an outside firms overhead plus a profit.  But the market now recognizes that the costs of services as determined by the seller is a proposition completely divorced from the value of services as perceived by the buyer.  And the latter is the only thing the buyer really cares about in the end.

Dessalines writes:

“Why should a client pay for a firm’s marketing costs, or phone bill or taste in art, or for any overhead cost? What correlation is there between the firm’s overhead and the value of the services delivered? There is none. And corporate clients know it.”

Alternative fee arrangements, and sophisticated means of measuring value are now commonplace.  To compete, outside law firms must offer value and predictability to their corporate clients, including insurance companies, which remain a major purchaser of outside legal services.  Value pricing, Dessalines observes, is gaining traction.  And in the face of the economic realities of today’s legal marketplace, how could it not be?

A new economic model for the pricing and delivery of legal services requires alternative fee arrangements.  Reach me for more information on how to deliver or purchase outside legal services more efficiently.