Federal Judge Denies Bifurcation of Bad Faith / UIM Claims

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WILLIAMSPORT, Sept. 20  — A Pennsylvania federal has refused GEICO’s motion to sever and stay bad faith claim after finding that judicial economy would not be served, and that no prejudice would occur to GEICO if the bad faith and UIM claims were tried together.

In David Newhouse et al. v. GEICO Casualty Co., No. 17-477, M.D. Pa., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150793, U.S. Middle District of Pa. Judge Matthew Brann denied GEICO’s request to bifurcate the case, which was originally filed in state court, but removed by GEICO to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

On March 16, 2015, GEICO insured David Newhouse was operating a rental car when he was struck from behind by a car driven by Joseph Haywood.  As a result of the accident, Newhouse alleged he  suffered a number of injuries. Haywood’s liability  insurer tendered his $15,000 limit of his insurance policy to Newhouse.  The policy Newhouse had with GEICO provided $100,000.00 in UIM coverage, stacked for two vehicles, for a total of  $200,000 in UIM benefits.

After the Haywood tender, Newhouse  demanded the $200,000.00 policy limit he had with GEICO.  GEICO responded with an offer of  $10,000,  after which Newhouse filed suit for breach of contract and bad faith.

Judge Brann rejected GEICO’s argument that the breach of contract and  bad faith claims were “wholly distinct” from one another and severing the claims would promote judicial economy:

 

“Newhouse’s bad faith claim is based on GEICO offering $10,000.00 as the UIM settlement amount and failing ‘to act with reasonable promptness in evaluating and responding’ to Newhouse’s demand.  While the two claims are grounded on similar findings of evidence, they are nevertheless separate claims.  Thus, litigation on the bad faith claim is not contingent upon success of the breach of contract claim. . .  For example, documents concerning how Newhouse’s insurance claim was handled, documents reflecting the claims adjuster’s determination, and how GEICO arrived at its settlement value would be relevant for both claims.  Contrary to GEICO’s contention, bifurcating these claims and consequently requiring two separate discovery processes would be a waste of both judicial resources and time.”

Judge Brann also determined that GEICO would not be prejudiced by denial of the motion to bifurcate, sever, and stay.

David Newhouse et al. v. GEICO Casualty Co., No. 17-477, M.D. Pa., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150793

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UM/UIM Plaintiff Fails to State Bad Faith Claim, Federal Judge Rules

ACCIDENT

Philadelphia, Sept. 6 – A Pennsylvania federal judge has ruled that a UM/UIM insured has failed to state a bad faith claim against State Farm Insurance arising out of the handling of her UIM claim.  In Myers v.  State Farm Automobile Insurance Company, federal judge R. Barclay Surrick granted State Farm’s 12(b)(6) motion to the complaint, but granted the insured plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint.

The insured filed a UIM claim with her insurer after sustaining injuries in an auto accident.  After failing to reach agreement on the settlement of her UIM claim, the insured filed breach of contract and bad faith claims against State Farm in Philadelphia County Common Pleas Court.   In the complaint, the insured alleged State Farm’s failure to act with reasonable promptness or to act with reasonable fairness, as well as the failure to conduct a proper investigation.

State Farm removed the action to the Eastern District of Pa., and filed a motion to dismiss  the bad faith claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).  Judge Surrick, in granting the motion, observed that “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, [the insured’s] complaint must include factual allegations from which the Court may plausibly infer the unreasonable and intentional or reckless denial of benefits.”  The judge found the plaintiff’s allegations to be conclusory at best, observing that the complaint failed to describe the ways and means in which the insurer allegedly failed to properly investigate her claim.  The complaint also, Judge Surrick observed, failed to cite to any specific transactions or contact between the insured and the insurer which would factually make out a bad faith claim.

The Court concluded that even if it took the averments  the insured’s complaint as true, it was unable to  “plausibly infer from those facts that [insurer] acted unreasonably and intentionally or recklessly in denying benefits to [the insured].”  The Plaintiff was granted leave to attempt to amend her complaint to allege sufficient factual support for her bad faith claims.

Myers v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co.,  No. 17-3509, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143794 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 6, 2017) (Surrick, J.)

Judge Rules No Bad Faith In Insurer’s Low But Reasonable Valuation of UM/UIM Claim

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PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 17 – A Pennsylvania state court judge has granted summary judgment in favor of Travco Insurance Company, ruling that a $25,000.00 offer in a UIM claim which later ended in a $45,000.00 arbitration award was not so unreasonably low as to constitute bad faith.

In Boleslavksy v. Travco Insurance Co., Travco offered its insured $25,000.00 to settle a UIM claim in response to the insured’s  policy limits demand of $50,000.00.  After reviewing some additional information on the claim, Travco increased the valuation of the claim to $28,000.00 but did not change it’s offer in light of the policy limits demand.

The UIM case went to arbitration where the insured won an award of $45,000.00.  The insured thereafter  filed sued Travco for bad faith in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, arguing first  that insurer’s final settlement offer of $25,000 was inadequately low in light of the ultimate arbitration award, and second that Travco never notified the insured of the valuation increase.

Travco filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that its offer and claims conduct were reasonable as a matter of law.  The Court agreed with the insurer, granted the motion and found Travco’s offer to be low but reasonable, and therefore not in bad faith.  The Court also found that Travco continued to reasonably evaluate information concerning the claim, and that offers of settlement which were made in the context of that information were not without basis.

Finally, the court ruled Travco had no obligation to increase its offer to $28,000.00 because the insured had unambiguously hewed to a policy limits demand, signaling no desire to negotiate.

Boleslavksy v. Travco Insurance Co., No. 151000886, 2017 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 257 (Phila. C.C.P. Aug. 17, 2017) (Anders, J.)

Attorney Client Privilege Waived In Bad Faith Case Despite No Advice of Counsel Defense, Federal Magistrate Rules

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HATTIESBURG, Aug. 15 — A federal magistrate judge in Mississippi has ruled Nationwide Insurance must produce documents and that the insurer’s former counsel must produce billing records in a bad faith case related to the handling of an uninsured/underinsured motorist’s claim, finding the insurer waived protections under the attorney-client privilege and the attorney work product doctrine, even though it did not formally assert the advice of counsel defense.

In Craig Flanagan, et al. v Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company,  U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Parker  found that while Nationwide did not formally assert the advice of counsel defense opening the door to prior counsel’s work product and communications, it did pick and choose certain potentially privileged documents to produce in  aid of  its defense in the case, thereby waiving attorney – client and work product protections.

Nationwide’s insured, Craig Flanagan was severely injured in a motor vehicle accident on  May 31, 2014 while driving a vehicle owned by owned by Flanagan Construction Co. and insured by Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Co.  The Nationwide Policy provided UM/UIM Coverage, out of which Nationwide paid  $1 million statutory limits for noneconomic damages and $1.5 million for the medical expenses.  After Nationwide failed to pay the remaining $4.15 million in remaining UM/UIM limits, Flanagan, his wife,  and Flanagan Construction sued Nationwide in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. In the suit, the  Plaintiffs sought the remaining UM/UIM limits ,  and also alleged fad faith, for which they sought punitive damages.

During the course of the case the Plaintiff’s filed a motion to compel production of a number of Nationwide claims documents, including investigative documents, and the files of outside counsel, Bill McDonough of Copeland Cook Taylor and Bush, relating to the claims. The Plaintiffs also sought the billing records of McDonough and the Copeland firm,  which was retained initially by Nationwide  to investigate the claim, but was later retained to represent Nationwide in the UM/UIM claim as well.

In granting the motion to compel, Judge Parker wrote:

“Plaintiffs argue that Nationwide is relying upon the advice and actions of McDonough as a defense despite Nationwide’s insistence that it is not asserting an ‘advice of counsel’ defense.  According to Plaintiffs, ‘Nationwide has produced a number of communications between Nationwide and Copeland Cook in support of its defense to the bad faith allegations, but has chosen to cherry-pick which communications to produce in discovery and which communications to withhold on a claim of privilege.’ . . .  Plaintiffs also point to the fact Nationwide identified McDonough as a witness in its initial disclosures and point to Nationwide’s interrogatory response.”

Nationwide opposed the motion to compel,  and argued that did not plead advice of counsel.  It also argued that the documents it did produce showing communication between Nationwide and McDonough contained only “objective facts,” and neither legal advice nor attorney work product.

Judge Parker disagreed, however, writing:

“review of the documents produced by Nationwide . . . reveals that Nationwide did not simply disclose ‘objective facts’ as it alleges, but also disclosed McDonough’s opinions regarding Flanagan’s evidence supporting his loss of income claim, Flanagan’s ability to prove cognitive impairment, the need to hire experts, the benefits and risks involved in scheduling a medical examination, and the timeliness of Nationwide’s investigation and payment to Flanagan…

An insured cannot force an insurer to waive the protections of the attorney-client privilege merely by bringing a bad faith claim.  Nationwide’s prior production, however, has put at issue Nationwide’s confidential communications with McDonough.  Nationwide has voluntarily injected its counsel’s advice into this case by purposely disclosing, inter alia, its counsel’s opinion that Nationwide has not ‘unnecessarily delayed payment of [Flanagan’s] claim.  . . .

To allow Nationwide to use the attorney-client privilege to withhold additional information related to counsel’s advice ‘would be manifestly unfair’ to Plaintiffs.”

Judge Parker also  found that Nationwide’s disclosure of certain documents containing McDonough’s opinions and impressions constituted waiver of the work product doctrine as well, and ordered the documents to be produced.

Editor’s Note: The price of asserting the Advice of Counsel Defense in a bad faith case is always waiver of attorney – client privilege and the attorney work product doctrine.  The calculus of the costs and benefits of asserting the defense must therefore always  be done thoroughly and carefully.   Insurers and their lawyers must be mindful that there are many ways to assert Advice of Counsel, and few, if any, to try to put it back in to the bottle once it has been let out.  Formal assertion of the defense is but one way to waive the protections of   attorney – client privilege and the attorney work product doctrine.  The defense can be asserted by conduct as well, leading to inadvertent waivers of privilege and work product protection. 

Craig Flanagan, et al. v Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company, No. 2:17-cv-33-KS-MTP, S.D. Miss., Eastern Div., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123204

Pa. Federal Judge Says Amended Complaint Sufficiently Alleges GEICO Attempted To Avoid UIM Claim In Bad Faith

ACCIDENT

LANCASTER, July 11 –  A Federal District Judge has ruled that an amended complaint sufficiently alleges that GEICO sought to avoid a UIM claim in bad faith on grounds that the vehicle in question was not added to the subject policy.  In Reidi v. Geico Casualty Co., U.S. Middle District Judge Lawrence Stengel found that the insureds sufficiently alleged Geico failed to follow its own policy language guaranteeing coverage for new vehicles if they were reported to the company within 30 days of acquisition.

After granting Plaintiff’s leave to file an amended complaint following a motion to dismiss which Geico filed to the original complaint, the Judge held that the newer pleading sufficiently alleged breach of contract and bad faith.

After purchasing a new car, Ms. Reidi and her son were involved in an accident with an uninsured motor vehicle. The insureds made a claim for UIM benefits to Geico, which denied the claim because the  the newly purchased car was not listed an insured vehicle at the time of the accident. Ms. Reidi brought suit against Geico including claims for breach of contract and statutory bad faith.

In the amended complaint, the insureds attached their automobile policy which assured coverage  to plaintiffs “as long as they request a car be added to the policy within 30 days of acquiring the car.”

Judge Stengel found that reference to the specific policy language re newly acquired vehicles was sufficient allegation of bad faith.  He wrote, “an insurance company ignoring its costumer’s claim in the face of its own policy language clearly guaranteeing coverage for the very claim at issue certainly forms the basis for a bad faith claim.”

Editor’s Note:  This particular fact pattern provides very unfavorable optics for the insurer, and can easily, in the hands of competent plaintiff’s bad faith counsel, be made to look as if the insurer was attempting to use a technicality to avoid its coverage obligation — a technicality that its own policy took care of with the after-acquired vehicle provision.

Reidi v. Geico Cas. Co.CIVIL ACTION NO. 16-6139 (E.D. Pa. Jul. 11, 2017)

Insurer’s Failure To Obtain Stacking Waiver On Added Vehicle Results In Stacked Benefits, Pa. Judge Rules

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STROUDSBURG, May 30 –  A Pennsylvania state court judge has decided that a driver was entitled to $400,000 in stacked coverage because the driver did not sign stacking waivers when adding the most recent vehicles to his policy.

In Newhook v. Erie Ins. Exchange, Monroe County Court of Common Pleas Judge David J. Williamson granted declaratory relief sought by  Kenneth Newhook when he filed a complaint against Erie seeking entitlement  to the stacked coverage.   Newhook was involved in a rear end accident when he was struck by a drunk driver, and he alleged he sustained severe injuries in the collision.

Erie paid $100,000 in single-vehicle coverage but denied Newhook’s claim for $300,000 in additional stacking benefits based on 3 other vehicles listed on the policy.  Newhook neither selected nor waived stacking  when adding the most recent vehicles, Williamson noted in his opinion.

Williamson declined to follow Erie’s argument that it had no duty to obtain new stacking waivers for the recently added vehicles after the insured initially declined stacking on the former vehicles:

“It appears that the existing case law varies regarding availability of stacked UM/UIM coverage when it is not selected by an insured, but also not specifically waived in writing…From a pure public policy standpoint, and in conformity with the intent of Section 1738 of the [Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law], it would seem that when more benefits are available, a written waiver of those benefits should be given…Clearly, a significant change was made when the Ford Fusion was added to the policy. No stop-gap insurance was needed because Erie was informed and issued a new declaration and also renewed the insurance policy prior to the accident. No new waiver was executed.”

Williamson ruled in favor of stacking despite the fact that the vehicle in the accident, a Ford Fusion, was a replacement for an automobile on which stacking had originally been rejected.  The judge ruled that acquisition of the new cars was akin to the purchase of a new vehicle, on which a stacking waiver would be required.

A link to the opinion appears below.

Newhook v. Erie Ins. Exchange (Monroe C.P., May 30, 2017)(Williamson, J.)

Pa. Judge: Bad Faith Case Severed, Jury To Hear Common Law Bad Faith Claims

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Pennsylvania’s  Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas has denied a motion to stay of discovery in a  bad faith case pending completion of a UIM case, but has also ordered severance of trial of the bad faith claims under which common law bad faith claims will be tried by a jury, and statutory bad faith claims will be tried by the judge.

In Madeja v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co., No. 5493 of 2016 (C.P. Westmoreland Co. April 11, 2017 Scherer, J.), the plaintiffs advanced both common law bad faith claims and statutory bad faith claims,  The trial court ordered those claims severed from the underlying UIM claim.  In a bit of a quirk, however, the court ruled that depending on the verdict returned on the UIM claim,  the common law bad faith claims would be heard with the same jury that determined the UIM claim while the court would hear the statutory bad faith claim on a non-jury basis.

A copy of the trial court order can be found here.

Editor’s note:  The trial court order in this case points out the somewhat unique nature of bad faith law in Pennsylvania — it is a two-headed creature with both a common law component and a statutory law component.  In this writer’s experience, trials of both statutory and common law bad faith claims is not the norm — statutory bad faith claims are usually singly tried to the bench in state court.  The court order in question sets up for a potentially unruly and cumbersome bad faith trail, given the likelihood of overlapping evidence presented on the common law and statutory bad faith claims.   The Court might streamline the process by simply taking evidence in a single bad faith proceeding, and then letting the jury render a verdict on the common law claims, with the Court issuing a decision on the statutory bad faith claims. 

The ruling could serve as an incentive to the plaintiffs’ bar to not only plead common law bad faith claims, but seek trial of those claims in an effort to work around what has traditionally been the province of the trial judge in bad faith cases. 

 

 

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