Electronic Signature On Limited Tort Form and Medical Peer Review Both Valid; Court Dismisses Bad Faith Claims Against Progressive

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PHILDADELPHIA, Dec. 11 – A Pennsylvania Federal judge has granted summary judgment in favor of Progressive Insurance in a bad faith case, finding in part that an electronic signature on a limited tort form was valid, and that use of a PRO medical review was also appropriate

In Jallad v. Progressive Advanced Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 202999, Plaintiff Sahar Jallad (“Jallad”) filed suit against a motorist defendant and her own insurer, Progressive Advanced Insurance Company (“Progressive”) in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, alleging negligence against the motorist,  Madera causing personal injuries,  and claims of breach of contract and bad faith against Progressive related to its handling of Jallad’s underinsured motorist (“UIM”) claim.

Following removal of the case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelly granted Progressive’s motion for summary judgment on the bad faith claims.

Judge Kelly confirmed a long standing principle that the mere disagreement over the value of the insured’s injuries in the setting of a UIM claim was not a sufficient basis for a prima facie bad faith case against an insurer.

Judge Kelly went on to rule that none of four other arguments made by Jallad created a genuine issue of material fact as to the bad faith claims.  First, Kelly ruled that regardless of whether or not the tortfeasor’s insurer paid a $15,000.00 liability limit insuring Madera,  Progressive was entitled to a credit of that available limit toward the valuation of Jallad’s UIM claim.

Kelly further dismissed Jallad’s argument that her signature on a limited tort election was invalid:

“Jallad provides no citation to any case law or statute that prohibits insurance companies from obtaining electronic signatures for tort waiver forms. Further, Progressive responds that electronic signatures are permissible under both federal and Pennsylvania state law. See 15 U.S.C. § 7001; 73 P.S. § 2260.305. Accordingly, Jallad’s argument is without merit.”

Next, Judge Kelly ruled that Proressive’s use of a PRO reviews of Jallad’s medical records did not, as a matter of law, constitute bad faith:

“Pennsylvania law provides that “[i]nsurers shall contract jointly or separately with any peer review organization established for the purpose of evaluating treatment, health care services, products or accommodations provided to any injured person” and “[s]uch evaluation shall be for the purpose of confirming that such treatment, products, services or accommodations conform to the professional standards of performance and are medically necessary.” 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1797(b)(1). Under the circumstances presented here, we fail to see how sending medical documentation to a PRO to determine whether medical treatment conforms to the professional standards of performance or is medically necessary amounts to bad faith.”

The Court finally ruled that Progressive’s request for documents concerning Jallad’s wage information was appropriate, and  dismissed Jallad’s bad faith claims with prejudice.

Jallad v. Progressive Advanced Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 202999

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Bad Faith Cannot Be Presumed In UIM Claim, Federal Judge Rules

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PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 17 – A federal judge in Pennsylvania has dismissed a bad faith claim against State Farm Insurance arising out of the handling of a UIM claim, ruling that neither the passage of time or the non-payment of the claim in themselves can establish a prima facie case of insurer bad faith under the Pennsylvania Bad Faith Statute.

In Sherman v. State Farm Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 190363, Judge Mark A. Kearney ruled that the Plaintiffs had not plausibly set forth a bad faith claim against State Farm arising out of a January 2013 auto accident involving Edward Sherman.  After settling with the tortfeasor following the accident,  the Shermans notified State Farm of their intent to pursue a UIM claim u nder their own auto policy in February 2015. 

The complaint alleged that State Farm investigated the claim between Febryary and July of 2015 but that State Farm failed to make any offer of payment.  After the Shermans sued State Farm in 2017, State Farm moved to dismiss statutory and common law bad faith claims  from the complaint.  In granting the motion to dismiss, Judge Kearney wrote:

“After July 1, 2015, we have no idea what happened. As of July 1, 2015, the parties were working together to address the Shermans’ UIM claim. Over two years later on September 27, 2017, the Shermans sued State Farm claiming it never provided the Shermans with UIM benefits…

Our court of appeals has consistently dismissed Section 8371 claims when the complaint lacks factual allegations of bad faith conduct, and only states conclusory allegations…

[The] Shermans allege communications evidencing responsive insurer conduct and then conclude, simply because they have not been paid since, State Farm is liable for bad faith. We have a gap of over two years with no allegation as to what happened. Bad faith is not presumed simply from a conclusory allegation  of no payment. In conclusory fashion, the Shermans allege State Farm failed to make an informed decision regarding their claims, failed to pursue a diligent investigation, and failed to act in good faith.  They also allege State Farm failed to make a settlement offer, and these actions were intentional, taken in bad faith, and aimed solely at reducing State Farm’s expenditures. These are the types of conclusory allegations which do not suffice. Failing to plead explanations or descriptions of what an insurer actually did, or why they did it, is fatal to a bad faith claim.  We cannot measure the reasonableness of the insurer’s conduct absent facts. Legal conclusions are insufficient.”

Judge Kearney also dismissed the Plaintiff’s Breach of Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing claims, and further  ruled that the Plaintiffs could not plead or recover attorneys’ fees on the remaining Breach of Contract claim.

Sherman v. State Farm Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 190363 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 17, 2017)(Kearney, J.)

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)

 

October Bad Faith Case Roundup

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Discovery

Claims Files / Reserve History

Parisi vs. State Farm, 2017 US Dist. LEX, 162161 (Western District of PA, Oct. 2, 2017) (Gibson, J.)Court ordered in camera inspection of State Farm’s claims file including portion of the file designated “free-form attorney” to make determination of whether or not information contained is protected by the attorney-client privilege or attorney work-product doctrine.   Court also held reserve history of claim is discoverable.

Pleadings

Adequately Pleading Bad Faith/Handling UIM Claim

Thomas vs. Protective Insurance Company, 2017 US Dist. LEX 166955 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 10, 2017) (Caputo, J.) – The Court denied Protective’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint pursuant to F.R.Civ. P. 12(b)(6) finding that Plaintiff sufficiently stated bad faith cause of action when making specific averments concerning insurer’s conduct of handling UIM claim.  Plaintiff specifically alleged Protective’s failure to investigate, failure to communicate, failure to evaluate, and misrepresentation to the insured as well as violation of Pennsylvania Insurance Department regulations.

Irving vs. State Farm, 2017 US Dist. LEXIS 164390 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 2017) (Slomsky, J.) – Court granted State Farm’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s bad faith claims pursuant to F.R.Civ.P 12(b)(6).   Disagreement over the value of the UIM claim, without more, does not constitute bad faith.   Plaintiff granted leave to attempt to amend Complaint to state bad faith cause of action.

 

Summary Judgment

Defense and Indemnity Provided To Insured

State Auto Property vs. Stucky, 2017 W.V. LEXIS 759 (Oct. 10, 2017) (Ketchum, J.) West Virginia Supreme Court held that Plaintiff failed to state a bad faith claim as a matter of law where it was provided defense and indemnity in an underlying trespass suit.   Court observed that State Auto provided the insured, CMD, with a defense and settled the underlying tort suit for $325,000, well within the insured’s $1 million dollar policy limit.
Delays Processing UIM Claim,  Collection of Records,  Investigation

Radolfi vs. State Farm, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS, 165013 (M.D. Pa., Oct. 5, 2017) (Carlson, J.) – Court grants summary judgment in favor of State Farm in UIM claim,  holding no inference from which a finding of bad faith could be made.   The Court observed that while there were delays in processing the claim, including the collection and review of medical records, the delays were not attributable to State Farm.  The Court found that State Farm’s request to the Plaintiff’s attorney for medical records were not complied with, including requests for updated medical records.  The Court held that Plaintiff also failed to provide employment records despite making a claim for wage loss.  The Court also held that a new contractual bad faith cause of action was barred by the law of the case, in that it had previously dismissed a statutory bad faith claim, and that State Farm’s initial error in stating coverage limits to the insured did not constitute bad faith.

The Best Defense: Insurer Voids Policy Ab Initio For Fraud, Alleges Reverse Bad Faith Following Claim

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PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 27 – A state court judge in Philadelphia has upheld a jury finding that a commercial property insurance policy was void ab initio based on the fraud of the insured in the application, requiring the insured to disgorge claims payments, and the insurer to refund premium dollars paid by the insured for the policy.

In Smith v. United States Liability Insurance Co .,  the  insured filed a  vandalism claim with USLIC which wrote a  commercial policy on the property.  USLIC paid  more than  $150,000.00 on the claim , but a public adjuster hired by the  insured disputed that amount, claiming the total damage was  $444,325.71.

During the claims investigation the insured sat for several  examinations under oath.   The insured ultimately sued USLIC for failure to pay the full claim.  USLIC filed an answer and counterclaim seeking, among other things, (1) declaratory relief  (2) a finding that the insured violated the Pennsylvania Insurance Fraud Statute, and committed  common law fraud; (3) a finding that the insured breached the insuring agreement and (4) committed reverse bad faith.

Following jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the insurer on all claims and counterclaims.  The Court, per Judge Ann Butchart, denied post trial motions, and entered judgment on the verdict, declaring the policy void,  and requiring the insured to pay the insurer $285,094.40 ($157,725.09 in previous claim payments under the policy and $127,369.31 for claim related expenses incurred by the insurer).  The Court further ordered USLIC to return $48,467.55 in premiums to the insured.

Judge Butchart wrote in part that the insured had lied in the insurance application about the frequency of prior claims, withholding this information from the insurer:

“where the execution of a contract of insurance has been induced by fraudulent misrepresentations of the insured, the insurer may secure its cancellation . . . the jury, as the fact finder, determined by a standard of clear and convincing evidence that the Policy was procured by fraud with the intent to deceive . . . and the Court properly declared the Policy void ab initio. . . the jury was presented with sufficient evidence to determine, under the clear and convincing standard, that [the insured] committed fraud with intent to deceive when he submitted his application for insurance.”

 

Smith v. United States Liability Insurance Co., Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, June Term 2016 No. 2354, 2017 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 292 (C.C.P. Phila. Sept. 27, 2017) (Butchart, J.)

The Fine Art Of Deciding Not To Settle Within Policy Limits: Part Two

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In Part One of this post, we examined a hypothetical time-limit settlement demand against an insured for policy limits,  and contemplated the decision not to pay the demand.  In Part Two, we examine the specifics behind an insurer’s decision not to pay a time limits demand.

In the first half of this post we saw that the decision not to pay must be an informed and deliberate one.  Here are some of the nuts and bolts to that decision-making process:

 Err On The Side Of Paying

This may strike you as an awfully odd first element of the decision not to pay a policy limits demand — actually leaning toward paying it —  but stay with me for a second.  If you follow this rule first and foremost, all of your decisions not to pay a policy limits demands are going to look much, much better.

Perhaps it’s best to explain this one through the use of some numbers, looking back at the hypothetical policy limits demand of $300,000.00 we set up in Part One of this post.  If the case is not worth more than $150,000.00 after research and analysis, that is one thing, and a refusal of the demand of $300,000.00 is most likely supportable.  But if your considered judgment is that the case is worth  $285,000.00,  for example, be wise:  protect your insured and pay the $300,000.00.  If your reasoning leads you to believe that there is a 70-80% chance of a verdict of $350,000.00 or more, pay the $300,000.00 and get your insured’s name on a release.

Never flirt with disaster on the close ones.  It is not worth the downside.  Enough said.

Have A Thorough, Reliable, Claims Valuation/Vetting Process

This will mean everything to you if you pass on a policy limits demand and are later faced with a verdict in excess of policy limits.  If you are going to successfully defend a bad faith claim based on the excess verdict, a thorough, valid, reliable case valuation process will oftentimes save you from a follow-on bad faith verdict.  Without one,  you are likely facing and uphill and most likely unwinnable battle.

What comprises a thorough, reliable, claims process?  Investigation.  Analysis.  More Investigation.  More Analysis.  The basic blocking and tackling  is what we are talking about here – recorded interviews, medical records, police reports, wage and employment records, medical exams, depositions, discovery, etc.  The more information considered, the better.

Legal research into the liability aspects of the case, jury verdict research from the applicable venue, and similar case-valuation research is also extremely helpful.  If the venue you are in routinely shows verdicts in the high six-figure amounts for multiple fracture automobile accident cases, refusing to pay the demand of $300,000.00 is, obviously going to be much harder to justify.

Do the homework.  And make the decision to pay or not to pay the limits demand depending on what your homework shows.

Thoughtful deliberation by more than just a single claims professional is crucial as well– collective wisdom and decision-making is a great help to successful bad faith defense.   For an extra layer of protection, especially in high value cases, it never hurts to ask independent, outside counsel for a complete evaluation of liability, damages, and a case valuation.  It is time and money well spent.

Document Your Thorough, Reliable, Claims Valuation/Vetting Process

The best and most intricate case workup and evaluation will be of no use to you in a bad faith case if you cannot reconstruct the thought processes of your claims professionals leading up to the decision not to pay a policy limits demand.   All of the major aspects of the process should be reflected in either the claims file and/or the claims notes, for use at a later time in the event of an excess verdict.

The settlement negotiations themselves should likewise be documented, including notes following telephone calls and correspondence from your counsel to the Plaintiff’s counsel declining the demand, and more importantly, explaining the rationale for declining the demand, whether it be because liability is questionable, or the value of the injuries to not justify, based on your research, the amount of the settlement demand.

If you feel the demand is premature because, for example, depositions have not yet been taken in the case, spell that out in your negotiations and, if appropriate, ask for additional time, or to hold negotiations open.  If there is missing information you need from the Plaintiff or his lawyer, document making requests for that information, as well as any failures on the part of your counterparts to provide that information, and how that impacts your ability to evaluate the demand.

In other words, leave a very good trail of breadcrumbs.

Conclusion:  Is It Better To Be Right or Reasonable?

There is likely no tougher decision in the insurance claims business than the decision of whether or not to pay a policy limits settlement demand on behalf of an insured.   A great deal rides on making the right call.   So the process used in arriving at that decision is of utmost importance.

Whether it is better to be right or reasonable is a trick question, of course — it is always best to be both.  When it comes to the decision not to pay a policy limits settlement demand, however,  you cannot always be right.  But you can always be reasonable, by sticking with the right process, and that will keep you out of the worst  kinds of trouble.

Sinkholes Near Propane Storage Tanks Not Covered Loss, Federal Judge Rules

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HARRISBURG, Sept. 18 – A federal judge has ruled that a sinkhole collapse near the insured’s propane storage tanks was not a covered loss under the insured’s property policy, finding a flood exclusion in the policy applied.

In Heller’s Gas, Inc. v. International Ins. Co. of Hannover, Ltd.,, U.S. Middle District Judge Matthew Brann granted International’s motion for summary judgment in full on both breach of contract and bad faith claims.  Heller’s had a policy insuring Heller’s property which include  six propane storage tanks.  Several months after policy inception, Heller’s noticed sinkholes near  the tanks.

An engineering firm engaged by Heller’s concluded the sinkholes were the result of excessive rainfall.  International began an investigation, reserving all rights, and raised a number of potential policy exclusions including Excavation Cost, Land and Water, and Earth Movement exclusions.

Ultimately Heller’s brought suit against the insurer, alleging International’s breach of the policy, and bad faith.

In granting the insurer’s summary judgment motion, Judge Brann held that Heller’s failed  to meet the burden of establishing actual property damage.  Judge Brann also found that the policy’s flood exclusion precluded coverage because the damage was the result of “surface water,” as confirmed by the insured’s engineering firm.

Judge Brann held that International had a reasonable basis to ultimately deny the claim, and that as a result Heller’s could not meet the heightened burden of clear and convincing evidence showing that the insurer acted in bad faith.

Heller’s Gas, Inc. v. International Ins. Co. of Hannover, Ltd., No. 4:15-CV001350, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151072 (M.D.Pa.  Sept. 18, 2017)(Brann, J.)