Pa. Supreme Court Update: Is Ill Will A Required Element of Bad Faith?

alert

PITTSBURGH, April 4  — This week, the  Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral argument on whether intentional ill will or malice was a required element to make out a claim for insurance bad faith in Pennsylvania, exposing insurers to punitive damages.

In Rancosky v. Conseco, the Pa. Superior court reversed a trial court ruling in favor of an insurer on bad faith claims following a bench trial.  The Superior Court held that the insurer  did not have a reasonable basis to deny benefits to LeAnn Rancosky following her diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2003.  The intermediate appeals court relied on its 1994 ruling in Terletsky v. Prudential, and held that while it was a consideration, ill will and malice was not a stand-alone requirement to establish insurer bad faith.

Ms. Rancosky and her husband sued Conseco in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas in 2008,  and eventually won a $31,000 jury verdict on breach-of-contract claims.  Conseco prevailed, however, on the bad faith claims.

During argument this week, Conseco argued to the state Supreme  Court  that Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute does not contemplate punitive damage awards against carriers without evidence of a malicious motive.  In response, Rancosky’s estate argued that proving ill will was exceptionally difficult, and that making bad motive a requisite element would allow insurers to handle claims recklessly and carelessly without fear of penalty.

Law360.com reported that during argument earlier this week,  Justice Max Baer saw the appeal of Rancosky’s arguments, stating “It’s hard to prove that kind of motive, and if you’re going to hold the insured to that burden then you tend to put the rabbit in the hat and the insurance company wins because they say, ‘We’re the most incompetent organization in the world. We were dead wrong, but we had no motive of ill will.’”

A ruling is anticipated later this year.

Editor’s note:  Justice Baer’s comments during oral argument this week are emblematic of a trending misconception that the Pa. Bad Faith Statute created anything beyond an intentional tort cause of action.  There is a large body of case law in both Pa. state and federal courts holding that mere negligence is not bad faith, and that an insurer has the legal right to be wrong on claims decisions, as long as the decision can be supported by a reasonable basis. 

There should be no real dispute that reasonable but negligenct claims decisions are not actionable, and that intentionally malicious claims decisions are actionable , under the bad faith statute.  The  current battleground in Pennsylvania appears to be the class of claims decisions which lie in the twilight between these two signposts, i.e., claims decisions made recklessly, and wanton disregard to the insured’s rights.   Rancosky is an attempt to find clarity in this twilight.

 

 

No Bad Faith Claim Where UIM Claim Not Covered Under Antique Auto Policy

alert

PITTSBURGH, March 13 – U.S. District Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy has dismissed both a bad faith and breach of contract claim against an issuer  of an antique auto policy where the alleged injury occurred in a vehicle not covered under the UM/UIM portion of the policy.

Bish v. Am. Collectors Insurance, Inc., et. al., (W.D. Pa., March 13, 2017)(Eddy, U.S.D.M.J.)

Disagreement Over ACV Estimate Insufficient To Support Bad Faith Claim, Judge Rules

arson

PITTSBURGH, March 2  —  An ACV basis estimate upon which a homeowners’ claims offer was made by State Farm Insurance  did not lack a reasonable basis, a federal judge ruled in dismissing the homeowners bad faith claim.  In Randy Gowton v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon dismissed Gowton’s bad faith claim against State Farm, finding that the  insured  failed to show that his insurer’s offer to settle “was not supported by a thorough and even-handed investigation.”

Gowton sustained damage to his home in a fire, and submitted an estimate from his contractor to State Farm for a replacement cost benefit of $293,911.80.  After performing its own inspection, State Farm offered just $112,694.50, based on a replacement cost estimate of $187,874.50, less  depreciation of $75,180.15.  Gowton’s policy was payable on an “actual cash value benefits” basis.

Gowton sued State Farm in the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas, and after removing the case to federal court, State Farm moved to dismiss the bad faith count.  A breach of contract count had previously been dismissed by Judge Bissoon on statute of limitations grounds.

Judge Bissoon held that mere disagreement on the value of a claim following a reasonable investigation could not support a claim for bad faith:

“Gowton has failed to allege any facts to suggest that State Farm’s settlement offer lacked a reasonable basis or was not supported by a thorough and even-handed investigation… Significantly, Gowton’s response brief reiterates that he is not alleging that State Farm was dilatory, failed to communicate, performed an unsatisfactory or biased investigation or unreasonably delayed in considering his claim.  Rather, Gowton simply alleges that State Farm’s estimate was per se unreasonable for no other reason than that it differed from his own.. In the absence of any supporting facts from which it might be inferred that the company’s investigation was biased or unreasonable, this type of disagreement in an insurance case is ‘not unusual,’ and ‘cannot, without more, amount to bad faith.”

“This conclusion is bolstered by an examination of the exhibits referenced throughout Gowton’s Amended Complaint.  State Farm performed an initial inspection of the property only two days after the damage occurred and provided a detailed, 38-page estimate within a month thereafter.  State Farm’s estimate contains a room-by-room assessment of the damage; detailed measurements; design drawings; materials analysis; and line by line estimates of the cost and depreciation of the construction materials necessary to rebuild the home.  This is precisely the type of thorough and adequate investigation that vitiates a claim of bad faith.”

Randy Gowton v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., et al., No. 15-1164, W.D. Pa., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29390 (Bissoon, J.)

UM/UIM Rejection Form Need Not Comply Verbatim With Statute, State High Court Rules

What-does-an-auto-insurance-policy-look-like-2-e1310427553251

HARRISBURG, Feb.22 – In a 5-2 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a UM/UIM rejection form which did not comply verbatim with the statutory requirements for rejection was valid, finding the differences between the form and the statutorily required language “inconsequential.”

In Ford v. Am. States,  the Plaintiff rejected UM/UIM coverage in her auto policy by signing a form which, according to the opinion, was identical to the statutorily required waiver in 75 Pa.C.S.A. sec. 1731 except for the following:  1.) the form referenced “motorists” instead of “motorist” in its title line and first sentence, and 2.) it injected the word “motorists” between  Underinsured” and “coverage” in the second sentence.

The American States form read, therefore, as follows:

REJECTION OF UNDERINSURED MOTORISTS PROTECTION

By signing this waiver I am rejecting underinsured motorists coverage under this policy, for myself and all relatives residing in my household. Underinsured motorists coverage protects me and relatives living in my household for losses and damages suffered if injury is caused by the negligence of a driver who does not have enough insurance to pay for all losses and damages. I knowingly and voluntarily reject this coverage.

In affirming summary judgment in favor of American States, Justice Max Baer rejected Ford’s argument that the form she signed violated Section 1731, and cited to Robinson V. Travelers Indemnity Co., 520 Fed. Appx. 85 (3d Cir. 2013).  In Robinson, the identical language used by American States was found to be in compliance with the Pa.M.V.F.R.L.:

“the Third Circuit observed that the MVFRL does not define the phrase “specifically comply” and that courts have not been uniform in their treatment of UIM coverage rejection forms that add language to the statutory form. Robinson, 520 Fed.Appx. at 88. As to the specific circumstances in the case, the court reasoned that the addition of the word “motorists” into the rejection form did not introduce any ambiguity and, in fact, made the form consistent with the rest of the MVFRL. Id. While the court opined that it is a better practice for  insurance companies not to supplement the statutory language of the MVFRL’s rejection form, the court nonetheless concluded that the insurer’s rejection form was valid because: it included the entirety of the statutory text; the addition of the word “motorists” did not introduce ambiguity into the form and did not alter the scope of the coverage.”. .  when a UIM rejection form differs from the statutory form in an inconsequential manner, the form will be construed to specifically comply with Section 1731 of the MVFRL.”

Justice Baer did caution, however, that the safer practice for insurers was to replicate the statutory language to avoid any question of non-compliance of UM/UIM rejection forms.

Ford. v. American States Ins. Co. (Pa., Feb. 22, 2017) (Baer, J.)

Claims Delay Not Unreasonable, In Bad Faith, Judge Rules

lateclaim

SCRANTON, Pa., Jan. 31 — An auto insurer did not unreasonably delay processing of a claim, a Pennsylvania federal judge has ruled.   In Thomas and Colleen Meyers v. Protective Insurance Co., No. 16-1821, M.D. Pa., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11338, a delay in the payment of an auto claim at issue in the case was found not so unreasonable as to constitute bad faith.

Thomas Meyers was insured by a hit-and-run vehicle while working as a delivery man on  Jan. 21, 2014.  He filed a claim alleging serious injury  with  Protective Insurance Co.,  for uninured/underinsured motorist benefits on April 23, 2014.  Meyers sought medical expenses and wage loss of more than $120,000.00 on Feb. 1, 2006.  He claims to have received no response from Progressive for more than three months.

On May 26, 2016, Meyers rejected a settlement offer from Protective in the amount of $225,000 .  Meyers later rejected an increased offer, and Protective hired counsel requesting additional time to review the claim.  Protective’s counsel required Meyers to complete four medical evaluations.

Meyers sued the Protective in the Lackawanna County, Pa., Court of Common Pleas, stating claims for breach of contract, common law, and  statutory bad faith pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. §8371.  Protective removed the action to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and moved to dismiss all claims including breach  of “fiduciary duty,” bad faith and a loss of consortium claim.

Judge A. Richard Caputo dismissed all fiduciary claims, holding, “[u]nder Pennsylvania law, an insurer owes a duty of good faith and fair dealing toward their insureds.  It is well-established, however, that there is no fiduciary duty owed to an insured in the context of an underinsured/uninsured motorist benefits.”

Judge Caputo also rejected the bad faith claims, including allegations that Protective’s failure to communicate constituted bad faith, finding such claims unsupported.  The judge found  that the insurer contacted the Meyerses four times requesting information and/or providing updates on the investigation between March 9, 2016, and May 24, 2016:

“Moreover, after the first settlement offer was rejected by Plaintiffs, Defendant, within only one week, proposed a new, higher, settlement offer.  Although Defendant often did not immediately respond to Plaintiffs’ communications, an allegation of ‘failure’ to communicate is inconsistent with reality.  Defendant’s communications may be described as tardy, but I cannot impute bad faith or even unreasonable delay, especially in light of the fact that Defendant made a settlement offer within three-and-a-half months after receiving Plaintiffs’ estimate of damages.  Although ‘[d]elay is a relevant factor in determining whether bad faith had occurred,’ [Kosierowski v. Allstate Ins. Co., 51 F.2d 583, 588 (E.D.Pa.1999)], I am unable to find precedent supporting the proposition that an insurance company’s investigation of a claim lasting three-and-a-half months is unreasonably lengthy. . . “[t]here is also no evidence that Defendant failed to objectively and fairly evaluate Plaintiffs’ claims, or that the settlement offer was so inadequate as to constitute bad faith.”

Judge Caputo also did not find Protective’s settlement offers unreasonably low:

“First, given that the damages package provided by Plaintiffs included a ‘medical lien and wage loss documentation in an amount in excess of $122,000,’ a settlement offer that is higher by nearly $100,000 than the proposed damages package is not unreasonable, and ‘bad faith is not present merely because an insurer makes a low but reasonable estimate of an insured’s damages.’  Secondly, Plaintiffs’ assertion of a verdict potential is an opinion as to the value of their claim, not an objective measure of it, and because such an assertion is nothing more than a legal conclusion, it must be disregarded.  Simply put, Plaintiffs’ subjective belief as to the verdict potential of their claims cannot constitute evidence of bad faith on the part of Defendant because Defendant’s subjective belief as to the value of the claim may reasonably, and permissibly, differ.”

The judge granted Protective’s 12(b)(6) motion, and gave the Plaintiffs 21 days to amend their complaint.

Thomas and Colleen Meyers v. Protective Insurance Co., No. 16-1821, M.D. Pa., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11338

 

Insurer’s Correct Position On Coverage Bars Homeowners’ and Bad Faith Claims

construction

PITTSBURGH,  Jan. 10 – A federal judge from the Western District of Pa. has dismissed both bad faith and coverage claims in which a homeowner sought coverage for defective workmanship on the home as part of a demolition and rebuild.

In Wehrenberg v. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., No. 14-1477, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3242 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 10, 2017), U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornack granted summary judgment to Metropolitan P&C Insurance Company on both breach of contract and bad faith claims brought by insured homeowner, Wehrenberg.  leased the house to a tenant, Hyatt, and authorized Hyatt to demolish and reconstruct the house.

Hyatt abandoned the house after gutting it, and the house, which had structural problems, was left unfinished.  Wehrenberg  submitted a claim the Metropolitan regarding the condition of the house, calling it “vandalism.”  Metropolitan denied the claim and Wehrenberg filed suit, claiming both breach of contract and bad faith.

Relying on policy language, Metropolitan moved for summary judgment on all claims on the following grounds:  (1) the loss was not “sudden and accidental direct physical loss or damage” under the terms of the Policy, (2) even if the loss is covered, the insured did not timely notify Metropolitan of the loss, and  (3) the damages claimed were explicitly excluded from coverage under the Policy, which did not cover construction related damage, and stated that the insurer was not responsible to pay for vandalism if the property was vacant for more than thirty days.

In granting the motion for Metropolitan, Judge Hornak held:

“First, the Court concludes that Plaintiff cannot, on the record before the Court, meet his burden of proving that his loss is covered by his Policy in the first instance. The Policy specifically provides that Defendant will only cover “sudden and accidental direct physical loss or damage to [Plaintiff’s] property.”. . . Under Pennsylvania law, “sudden and accidental” “mean[], respectively, ‘abrupt’ and ‘unexpected or unintended.'” U.S. Fire Ins. Co. v. Kelman Bottles, 538 F. App’x 175, 181 (3d Cir. 2013).”

The judge also dismissed the bad faith claims made by the insured, holding:

“In this case, as explained, there is no viable breach of contract claim, so the first part of Plaintiff’s bad faith claim cannot succeed. Second, Plaintiff argues that Defendant acted in bad faith by failing to adequately investigate his claim. In his papers, Plaintiff lists a variety of ways in which he asserts Defendant’s investigation was inadequate, including that Defendant did not conduct enough interviews to uncover the facts of the case and that Defendant did not look into allegedly stolen tiles brought into the house. ECF No. 88 at 12. Defendant however, asserts that an adequate investigation was conducted  and that it included an inspection of the house, interviews of Plaintiff and Hyman, consultation with its legal counsel, and the taking of Plaintiff’s Examination Under Oath. ECF No. 82 at 20. Plaintiff’s claim ultimately fails because he has not cited to anything in the record to support his argument—he merely alleges problems existed without providing any record evidence to prove them.”

Wehrenberg v. Metro. Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., No. 14-1477, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3242 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 10, 2017)