Application Satisfies Requirement of Written Election of Lower UM/UIM Limits, Federal Court Finds

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HARRISBURG, Dec. 29 – A U.S. District Court magistrate judge has ruled that an original signed application was  a valid means of choosing UM/UIM limits lesser than bodily injury limits under Pennsylvania’s motor vehicle law, even if a separate option selection form was not compliant with the statute.

In Farmland Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sechrist, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213618 (M.D. Pa., Dec. 29, 2017)(Arbuckle, M.J.), Plaintiff Farmland Mutual Insurance Company filed a declaratory judgment suit  against Defendants Edward Alfred Sechrist and Gary Bryant Kauffman, employees of Farmland’s insured, Clouse Trucking, seeking a  ruling that the commercial automobile insurance policy issued with a $1 million liability limit  provided $35,000 of combined single limit coverage for underinsured motorist claims arising out of an accident on April 30, 2013 in which both Sechrist and Bryant were seriously injured.

The Employees opposed Farmland Mutual, contending that the UIM limit should be equal to the policy’s bodily injury liability limit of $1 millon, on grounds that there was not a valid election of lesser UIM coverage pursuant to the Pa.M.V.F.R.L.  The employees claimed that the insurance policy should be reformed to include one million dollars of underinsured motorist coverage because the requirement of a signed writing choosing reduced UIM coverage  under 75 Pa.C.S.A. section 1734 was not met.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William I. Arbuckle first agreed with the employees that a specific UIM option selection form did not comply with section 1734 and was therefore not a valid election of lesser coverage:

Section 1734 of the MVFRL allows a named insured to elect limits of underinsured motorist coverage in an amount equal to or less than a policy’s liability limit for bodily injury. 75 Pa.C.S.A. section 1734.   Absent a signed, written election for lesser coverage, it is presumed that the underinsured motorist coverage limit is the same as the bodily injury liability coverage limit. . .

The Underinsured Motorist Coverage Selection form in this case. . .    is signed by Mr. Clouse but does not expressly designate the amount of coverage requested. Accordingly, we find that this form does not satisfy the requirements of  75 Pa.C.S.A. section 1734.

Judge Arbuckle went on to find, however, that the original insurance application prepared by an insurance agent, and signed by Mr. Clouse selecting the lesser amount of coverage, did meet the requirement of a signed writing under section 1734:

The parties dispute whether the Insurance Policy Application in this case satisfies the writing requirement of section 1734. . . Farmland contends that the Farmland Policy Application signed by Mr. Clouse is a valid written election of lower coverage under section 1734. By contrast, the Employees contend that the Farmland Policy Application does not satisfy the requirements of section 1734 because: (1) the Farmland Policy Application does not advise Clouse Trucking of Farmland’s obligation to offer underinsured Motorist coverage limits equal to the Farmland Policy’s limit for bodily injury; and (2) the Farmland Policy Application is not a clear indication of Clouse Trucking’s intent to purchase a underinsured motorist coverage below the Farmland Policy limit for bodily injury because the blanks in the Farmland Policy Application were filled in by an insurance agent.

As an initial matter, I find that Farmland is correct that the Farmland  Policy Application meets the requirements of section 1734. The Farmland Policy Application  is signed by Mr. Clouse, and does request a specific amount of underinsured motorist coverage.

In short, Judge Arbuckle found that the policy documents, including the application, constituted a valid written request for reduced UIM coverage.  He also found that whether or not an insurance agent completed the application itself  was irrelevant, provided, as here, that the insured certified via signature his review and adoption of the statements contained in the application.

Farmland Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sechrist, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213618 (M.D. Pa., Dec. 29, 2017)(Arbuckle, M.J.)

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Summary Judgment For Insurer In Super Storm Sandy Claim; Deposited Claim Check Constitutes Accord and Satisfaction

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PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 17 – The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a day care center which submitted a Super Storm Sandy  claim for nearly a million dollars has accepted less than $30,000.00 from Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company in full satisfaction of the claim.

In Cranmer v. Harleysville Insurance Company et al,  2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 23187 *; 2017 WL 5513204, the owners of Tiny Tots day care center submitted a claim for storm damages to PIIC for $956,455.09 for income loss, business interruption, and other related claims.  PIIC valued the claims at $28,542.84.  Ultimately, counsel for PIIC sent counsel for the insureds a letter which stated:

Accordingly, should I not hear from you within ten (10) days of your receipt of this correspondence, I will instruct [PIIC] to tender settlement in an amount of $28,542.84 payable to Tiny Tots Daycare Preschool, LLC and [RLF], its attorney. We will deem the acceptance of this payment as full and final settlement of this claim as well as a release by your client of any further demand for recovery as against Philadelphia Insurance Companies.

The insured endorsed and deposited the check, which was marked “FINAL,” and the comment line stated: “Business Income, windstorm damage, loss of income from the date of loss through the period of restoration.”  PIIC’s counsel also sent a general release to the insureds, however, which was never signed and returned.

The Plaintiffs sued PIIC for breach of contract and bad faith, and PIIC moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pa.  In affirming summary judgment in favor of the insurer, Judge Patty Schwartz held that the elements of an accord and satisfaction were met:

Under New Jersey law, the affirmative defense of accord and satisfaction requires the defendant to prove: “(a) a bona fide dispute as to the   amount owed; (b) a clear manifestation of intent by the debtor to the creditor that payment is in satisfaction of the disputed amount; and (c) acceptance of satisfaction by the creditor. . . The undisputed record shows that the first accord and satisfaction requirement of a bona fide dispute was satisfied because PIIC and Plaintiffs disagreed about the amount to which Plaintiffs were entitled under the insurance policy. Plaintiffs submitted Sandy-related claims to PIIC for $956,455.09 while PIIC valued Plaintiffs’ loss at $28,542.84. . .

There is also no genuine dispute that PIIC intended its $28,542.84 payment to satisfy all of Plaintiffs’ Sandy-related claims against PIIC, thus satisfying the second element of accord and satisfaction. The August 15, 2013 letter states that PIIC will “tender settlement in an amount of $28,542.84 payable to Tiny Tots Daycare Preschool, LLC and [RLF], its attorney” and “deem the acceptance of this payment as full and final settlement of this claim as well as a release by [Plaintiffs] of any further demand   for recovery as against [PIIC].” App. 341. One month later, PIIC’s counsel sent RLF a check for $28,542.84, with an accompanying letter that incorporated by reference PIIC’s August 15, 2013 letter and stated that the $28,542.84 payment was tendered “in good faith for the purposes of settlement.” App. 345-46. In  addition, the check contained a claim number matching the Sandy claim that Plaintiffs submitted to PIIC, was marked “FINAL” in the payment line, and the comment line stated “Business Income, windstorm damage, loss of income from the date of loss through the period of restoration.” . . . The combination of the letters and the check demonstrate that PIIC intended to make a payment in full satisfaction of the claim, and Plaintiffs have identified no evidence to the contrary.

The Court also ruled that the Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any bona fide evidence of bad faith on the part of PIIC, and affirmed summary judgment in favor of PIIC on the bad faith claims as well.

Cranmer v. Harleysville Insurance Company et al,  2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 23187 *; 2017 WL 5513204

Liquor Liability Exclusion In CGL Policy Unambiguous, Federal Judge Finds

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PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 20 – A federal district judge has ruled that a liquor liability exclusion in a CGL policy is unambiguous, and relieved an insurer from the duty to defend or indemnify its insured in underlying liquor liability litigation.

In Transportation Ins. Co. V. Healthland Hosp. Group, No. 15-4525, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 191951 (E.D.Pa. 2017), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pa. ruled that Transportation and CNA Insurance companies had no duty to defend or indemnity Healthland Hospitality, a group that operated bar service for the Woodbury Country Club.    Healthland was sued in state court after an over-served patron killed another motorist in a motor vehicle accident.

The exclusion in the CGL policy excluded defense or indemnity to Healthland for losses arising from:

“Bodily injury” or “property damage” for which any insured may be held liable by reason of:

(1) Causing or contributing to the intoxication of any person;

(2) The furnishing of alcoholic beverages to a person under the legal drinking age or under the influence of alcohol; or

(3) Any statute, ordinance or regulation relating to the sale, gift, distribution or use of alcoholic beverages.

This exclusion applies only if you are in the business of manufacturing, distributing, selling, serving or furnishing alcoholic beverages.

CNA denied coverage to Healthland, citing the exclusion.

Healthland argued in opposition, however,  that the exclusion’s  “in the business of” language was ambiguous.  The Court disagreed after the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment:

“Here, reading the relevant “in the business of” language in the context of the entire policy and the exclusion, it is clear that the provision is intended to distinguish an insured who occasionally serves alcohol from an insured who is involved with the service of alcohol with such regularity that the insured represents a significantly greater insurance risk. Indeed, numerous courts, including the Pennsylvania Superior Court, have reviewed identical or nearly identical liquor liability provisions and found them to not be ambiguous.”

Since the Court found the exclusion unambiguous, it found the underlying state court liquor liability litigation to be squarely within the exclusion, and held that CNA did not have a duty to defend or indemnify Healthland in those cases.  The Court granted the insurers’ motions for summary judgment, and denied Healthland’s cross-motion for summary judgment on coverage.

Transportation Ins. Co. V. Healthland Hosp. Group, No. 15-4525, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 191951 (E.D.Pa. 2017)

 

Liberty Mutual Wins Bad Faith Claim In Flood Loss Dispute

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PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 15 – A Pennsylvania federal judge on Nov. 15 dismissed a bad faith claim against Liberty Mutual, finding that a dispute over the amount Liberty Mutual should pay over a flood loss was not sufficient to create a legitimate bad faith cause of action.

In Steven Barnwell, et al. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co, No. 16-4739, E.D. Pa.,  2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 188427 (Beetlestone, J.), the Barnwells sued Liberty Mutual after a dispute arose over payment for an August 3, 2015 flood loss under the Barnewells’ homeowners policy with the insurer.  The home was under renovation at the time of the loss.

While the insurer made partial payment of the claim, the insureds sought further reimbursement and ultimately filed suit against Liberty Mutual in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pa.  In the proceeding, Liberty Mutual sought partial summary judgment on the bad faith claims.

U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone granted Liberty Mutual’s motion, observing that a mere dispute over the nature and extent of damage did not constitute bad faith on the part of the insurer:

“Plaintiffs’ do not point to any competent record evidence to subvert the restoration company’s determination that only one marble tile needed to be reinstalled. Plaintiff Barnwell himself testified at the arbitration hearing that only four to six of the tiles were ruined. Even so, neither Plaintiff contacted Liberty to tell it that there was more damage to the floor tiles than the restoration company had identified and that the cost of repair would, accordingly, be higher. Instead, they replaced the entire floor and asked Liberty to pay for it. Under the circumstances, it was not unreasonable for Liberty to deny benefits under the policy.”

Judge Beetlestone also held as a matter of law that Liberty’s positions on food loss and living expense reimbursement of the insureds were not so unreasonable as to create a genuine issue of fact regarding bad faith.

Finally, the Court ruled that Liberty’s withholding of depreciation allowance did not constitute bad faith either:

“By the terms of the policy, Liberty is not obligated to pay depreciation until repair or replacement is complete. Plaintiff has not pointed to record evidence that the repairs are complete or that it has notified Liberty that the repairs are complete. Absent such evidence, it was not unreasonable for Liberty to withhold payment to Plaintiffs for any deductions for depreciation.”

Steven Barnwell, et al. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co, No. 16-4739, E.D. Pa.,  2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 188427

 

A Roadmap For CGL Insurers To Disclaim Defense and Indemnity For Underlying Opioid Litigation

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In a post last  week, we discussed an appeals court opinion from California, Traveler’s Prop. Cas. Co. of Am. v. Actavis, Inc., 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 976, which ruled that Travelers Insurance had no duty to defend or indemnify pharmaceutical company insured who was sued by various state and local government units for deceptive practices leading to the overuse and abuse of opioids.  The opinion is a signpost on a road to what is likely to come a multiplicity of opioid suits against the drug-makers by governmental health organizations now overwhelmed with the problems arising out of opioid addition and abuse.

Insurers should be ready, therefore, to stake out clear lines demarcating the limits of the CGL coverage they wrote and priced, which  did not contemplate opioid suits.  Here is a very brief review of key points for successfully disclaiming duties to defend and indemnify insurers never contemplated:

What Does Your Policy Say?

CGL policies routinely cover “occurrences” which are traditionally seen to be accidental, unintended, and unexpected.  As discussed below, the current trend in opioid litigation is the allegation of intentional, deliberate conduct on the part of pharmaceutical companies.

In addition,  CGL policies routinely come with “Products and Completed Work” and / or “Completed Operations / Your Product” exclusions.  In the California case discussed earlier this week, and in most Pharma CGL’s, there is also a “Products-Completed Operations Hazard – Medical and Biotechnology” exclusion, which was seen by the Court as directly on point in Actavis.  The definition of an “occurrence” under the policy, and exclusions like these are the first steps to defining coverage, and these provisions have routinely been held by courts across the U.S. to be clear and unambiguous.

What Is Your Insured Being Sued For?

The emerging trend in opioid litigation against the manufacturers is the allegation by state and local governmental health units that the manufacturers deliberately misrepresented the benefits and downplayed the risks of opioids to self-grow demand for the drugs, and to diminish concern in the medical community for the risks and downside of opioid products, namely addiction.    The allegations sound in intentional conduct and intentionally deceptive trade and marketing practices, and are not the  types of allegations of accident or negligence which CGL polices are intended to cover, i.e., they are generally not “occurrences” as defined in the CGL policy.

The Actavis Court went to great pains to examine the underlying complaints against the drug makers, and in the end it found that the conduct complained of was neither accidental nor fortuitous such that it would be insurable under the CGL, but rather calculated and intentional.

Avoid The “Duty to Defend” Trap

While in the Actavis case the court recognized the distinction between an insurer’s duty to defend and duty to indemnity, it also  pointed out that where there is no possibility of coverage, not even the broad duty to defend was triggered.  The Court found that all of the conduct alleged was deliberate and not accidental, and that, according to the underlying complaints, none of the damages caused by the drug makers were unexpected or unforeseen.   It held, therefore, that not even the duty to defend was triggered.

There is case law in almost every jurisdiction holding that the duty to defend is not so broad and infinite as to require an insurer to defend its insured if there is no possible way the underlying wrongful conduct comes within the terms and conditions of the policy.   Insurers should take advantage of this to avoid incurring defense costs in these kinds of opioid cases where it is almost certain to never have a duty to indemnify.

The Best Defense…..

The costs of defending opioid litigation is, and will continue to be substantial.  Therefore, in the right cases, an insurer may be wise to invest in an early, interventional, declaratory judgment suit to free itself from any question of its duty to either defend, or indemnify insureds in the type of litigation seen in the Actavis case.  So too, early, well -reasoned denial letters, and, where appropriate, reservations of rights letters, will help protect the insurer from covering a risk it may never have contemplated, and certainly never priced into the policy it sold.

As discussed above, opioid litigation of the type seen in Actavis is likely to multiply.  Insurers should take pains to make sure that the CGL policies they issued, which  cover only accidental occurrences arising out of negligence, are not converted into product liability insurance for injuries and damages caused by opioids.

 

 

Travelers Does Not Owe Pharmaceutical Company Defense, Indemnity, In Opioid Suits

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RIVERSIDE, Nov. 6 – An intermediate appeals court in California has ruled that Travelers and St. Paul Insurance companies owe no duty to defend or indemnify Watson Pharmaceutical in governmental suits against the pharmaceutical company over the deceptive marketing of opioids.

In Travelers Prop. Cas. Co. of Am. v. Actavis, Inc., et al, No. G053749, 2017 Cal. App. Lexis 976 (Nov. 6, 2017)(Fybel, J.), The Court of Appeals of California held that under CGL policies issued by Travelers and Saint Paul, the exclusion from coverage of any liability arising out of manufactured products or “completed operations” relieved the insurers of the duty to defend or indemnify.   In the Court’s opinion, Associate Justice Richard Fybel described the nature of the underlying litigation against Watson and the other Parma defendants:

“The California Complaint and the Chicago Complaint are based on allegations that Watson and the other defendants engaged in a fraudulent scheme to promote the use of opioids for long-term pain in order to increase corporate profits. Both complaints allege that Watson had by the 1990’s developed the ability to cheaply produce opioid painkillers, but the market for them was small. Defendants knew that opioids were an effective treatment for short-term postsurgical pain, trauma-related pain, and end-of-life care and knew that, except as a last resort, “opioids were too addictive and too debilitating for long-term use for chronic non-cancer pain.” Defendants knew the effectiveness of opioids decreases with prolonged use, requiring increases in dosages and “markedly increasing the risk of significant side effects and addiction.”

While acknowledging an insurer’s duty to defend was separate and broader than its duty to indemnify, the Court found no potential for coverage in the underlying suits because the conduct complained in the underlying suits was not accidental or fortuitous:

“The injuries alleged [in the underlying suits] are: (1) a nation ‘awash in opioids’;  (2) a nationwide “opioid-induced [*24]  ‘public health epidemic'”; (3) a resurgence in heroin use; and (4) increased public health care costs imposed by long-term opioid use, abuse, and addiction, such as hospitalizations for opioid overdoses, drug treatment for individuals addicted to opioids and intensive care for infants born addicted to opioids.

None of those injuries was additional, unexpected, independent, or unforeseen. The complaints allege Watson knew that opioids were unsuited to treatment of chronic long-term, nonacute pain and knew that opioids were highly addictive and subject to abuse, yet engaged in a scheme of deception in order to increase sales of their opioid products. It is not unexpected or unforeseen that a massive marketing campaign to promote the use of opioids for purposes for which they are not suited would lead to a nation “awash in opioids.” It is not unexpected or unforeseen that this marketing campaign would lead to increased opioid addiction and overdoses. Watson allegedly knew that opioids were highly addictive and prone to overdose, but trivialized or obscured those risks.”

The Court also found that the underlying complaints set forth no claims against the pharmaceutical companies potentially sounding in negligence, and that the Products and Completed Operations Exclusions were clear and  unambiguous, such that they relieved the insurers from the duty to defend or indemnify the companies.

Travelers Prop. Cas. Co. of Am. v. Actavis, Inc., et al, No. G053749, 2017 Cal. App. Lexis 976 (Nov. 6, 2017)(Fybel, J.),

Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote’s Insurance Law Practice Group Named One of the Nation’s Best for 2018

U.S. News Best Law Firms

Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C. received six national practice area rankings in the 2018 “Best Law Firms” list published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®, which included the firm’s Insurance Law Practice Group.   The  firm’s inclusion in these rankings reflects the high level of respect a firm has earned from leading lawyers and clients in the same communities and practice areas for its ability, professionalism, and integrity.

The U.S. News – Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” rankings are based on a rigorous evaluation process that includes the collection of evaluations from clients, peer review from leading attorneys in their field, and review of additional information provided by law firms as part of the formal submission process. Clients and peers evaluated firms based on the following criteria:  responsiveness, understanding of a business and its needs, cost-effectiveness, integrity, and civility, as well as whether they would refer a matter to the firm and/or consider the firm a worthy competitor.

About Best Lawyers®
Best Lawyers is the oldest and most respected peer-review publication in the legal profession. A listing in Best Lawyers is widely regarded by both clients and legal professionals as a significant honor, conferred on a lawyer by his or her peers. Our lists of outstanding attorneys are compiled by conducting exhaustive peer-review surveys in which tens of thousands of leading lawyers confidentially evaluate their professional peers. Lawyers are not permitted to pay any fee to participate in or be included on our lists.

About Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C.
Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C. is a nationally-recognized law firm providing comprehensive legal expertise in a multitude of practice areas. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and founded more than 100 years ago, the firm serves industry-leading clients across the country from offices throughout the mid-Atlantic region in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, West Virginia, the Southwestern region of California, and the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado.

CJ Haddick is the Director In Charge of the firm’s Harrisburg, Pa., office, and he heads Harrisburg’s Insurance Law Practice Group.  Reach him at chaddick@dmclaw.com or 717-731-4800.