Travelers’ “Fairly Debatable” Position On Roof Loss Bars Bad Faith Claim

SALT LAKE CITY, Jan. 25 – A Utah federal judge has dismissed bad faith claims against Travelers on grounds that the insurer’s position on coverage of a roofing damage claim  following a windstorm was “fairly debatable.”  In Pheasantbrook Homeowners Ass’n. v. Travelers, U.D. District Judge David Nuffer ruled that even if an insurer is ultimately incorrect on a coverage position, it should escape bad faith liability if the position it took is “fairly debatable.”

Judge Nuffer reviewed applicable case law, including Utah decisions which have held that an insurer’s engagement of an expert to help assess the nature and extent of covered damage for a given loss could provide a defense to bad faith liability.  He ruled that the denial of certain portions of the windstorm claim in reliance on an expert engaged by the insurer, even if the expert was compensated, created legitimate factual questions regarding which portions of the roofing repairs were attributable to the windstorm, as opposed to betterment, maintenance, or a need to replace the roofing regardless of the wind damage.

Such legitimate factual questions regarding the insured’s proposal for roof replacement created a “fairly debatable” dispute about the amount owed, causing the judge to grant Travelers’ summary judgment motion as to the bad faith claim.

Pheasantbrook Homeowners Ass’n. v. Travelers, N.D. Utah, 2016 (Nuffer, J.)

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Alternative Fee Arrangements, Revisited

CAMP HILL, Jan. 27 – We addressed some of the flexibility provided by alternative fee arrangements in a prior post.   We are adding to that a resource page surveying some of the many emerging alternative fee arrangements we are offering to existing and prospective clients.  Please feel free to dig in and explore the many options available.

Good outside counsel view alternative fee ideas as starting points, not destinations.  Legal fee agreements can be as diverse and inventive as the lawyers and clients involved.  Reach out any time to me chaddick@dmclaw.com or 717-731-4800 for more information.

Zurich Asks 3rd Circuit To Reverse $1M UM/UIM Award

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 13.  Zurich American Insurance company has asked the U.S. Court of appeals  for the Third Circuit to reverse a lower court’s ruling ordering it to pay $1 million in uninsured motorist (UM) benefits, arguing that a sign down form setting UM limits at $35,oo0.00 was valid and enforceable.

Stefan Freeth alleged injury while working on a truck owned by roadway contractor Road-Con Inc.  He sought UM/UIM benefits under Road – Con’s commercial auto policy with Zurich, and was awarded $1 million in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pa., following Zurich’s removal of the case from the Chester County, Pa. Court of Common Pleas.

On appeal, Zurich contends that the sign down form completed by a company executive was a sufficient “express designation” within the meaning of the Pa. M.V.F.R.L.  to constitute a valid election of UM/UIM limits lower than the commercial auto policy’s bodily injury limits of $1 million dollars.  Freeth’s counsel claims the form is ambiguous, stating,  “there is no affirmative written election of the amount of $35,000.00 by Road-Con. There is no handwritten entry by the named insured or check mark or initialing of the amount of $35,000.00 on the Summary Form.”

Stefan Freeth v. Zurich American Insurance Co., No. 15-2924, (3rd Cir 2015)

Editor’s Note:  For copies of the briefing, email me at chaddick@dmclaw.com

Legal Departments: Are You Sharing Your Metrics With Outside Counsel?

From Legal Project Management (LPM) to the arrival of Legal Operations Officers at Legal Departments, insurers have become far more discerning and discriminating buyers of legal services than ever before.  Technology allows for any number of measurements of the performance of outside law firms, and therefore comparison of outside law firms.

Should this data be kept secret? Not if the insurer truly wishes to incentivize outside lawyers become the kind of lawyers the metrics are designed to create in the first place.

There are concerns, of course, about disclosing proprietary data, and information regarding other firms.  These issues, however, are easily addressed by 1.) providing metrics outputs to lawyers and law firms, not the methodologies and 2.) showing the outside lawyer or firm how it stacks up against averages, or par, as opposed to providing data on other lawyers or firms.

For an insurer to measure the data and not use it to influence outside lawyers toward the benchmarks the insurer is aiming for is to use but half of the tool.

The metrics themselves are as diverse as the objectives, but some of the more popular ones are:

  • Cycle Time  – how long a case takes from assignment to closing
  • Return on Investment – how much exposure was eliminated or reduced in exchange for payment of legal fees to defend a claim.  (This can also be an effective marketing tool for a law firm:  I was able to demonstrate to a large national insurer that over the course of several years that for every dollar they invested in legal fees,  my firm was able to eliminate six dollars in corporate contingent exposure.)
  • Leverage  – similar to ROI, a measure of dollars spent in relation to dollars at stake. Designed to prevent lawyers from killing flies with sledgehammers.
  • Overall Grade – somewhat subjective, but a great overall metric which allows General Counsel to grade how their outside lawyers are doing

We will delve into metrics in more detail in a future post.  In the meantime, remember that what can be measured can be used to steer outside lawyers in the direction the insurer wants to go.   Good outside lawyers will neither mind being measured, nor adjusting their performance to suit the insurer’s needs.

CJH

Travelers, Cincinnati Owe No Duty To Defend School In Lacrosse Death

Louisville, Jan. 21.  A U.S. District Court Judge in Kentucky has ruled that neither Travelers or excess insurer Cincinnati Ins. Co. have a duty to defend Bellarmine University in a wrongful death suit brought by the estate of a university lacrosse player who died while participating in conditioning drills.

On January 21, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Simpson granted the insurers’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding that the policy’s Athletic Participants Exclusion Endorsement relieved the insurers of the duty to defend or indemnify Bellarmine in the underlying death suit.   The endorsement excluded coverage for bodily injury “to any person engaged in athletic, exercise, or sports activities” sponsored by the university.

The Court held that Travelers did not contract to ensure the exposure for which Bellarmine was seeking defense and indemnity.  It also held that the excess policy issued by Cincinnati did not apply, as it contained language disclaiming coverage for any loss which came within an applicable exclusion in the language of the primary policy.

Underwriters Safety et al v. Travelers et al, W.D. Ky. 2016 (Simpson, J.)

Federal Judge Denies Stay, Upholds Insurer’s Work Product Privilege In Bad Faith Case

Reading, Pa., Jan. 19.  U.S. District Judge  Joseph Leeson  has denied a motion filed by Allstate Insurance Company to sever and  stay a  bad faith claim, including  discovery,  in a combined breach of contract and bad faith case, but has ordered that Allstate may properly assert work product privilege protection as to matters genuinely prepared in anticipation of litigation.

In Wagner v. Allstate, Judge Leeson conceded that while there may be a basis for separate trial of the breach of contract and bad faith claims under F.R.C.P. 42 , there was no need to prevent simultaneous discovery in both the breach of contract and bad faith claims.

Judge Leeson also granted in part and denied in part Plaintiff’s motion to compel discovery of Allstate’s claims file, ruling that the Court needed more information to make a complete ruling on the motion.  The Court ruled that Allstate did have the right to assert privilege over materials in its claims files which were prepared in anticipation of litigation, while observing the parties disputed the date at which time Allstate’s anticipation of litigation over the underlying UIM claim was bona fide.

Wagner v. Allstate Ins. Co., E.D. Pa. 2016 (Leeson, J.)

Phila. Judge Recommends Bad Faith Dismissal

Philadelphia, Jan. 20.  A Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge has recommended that the Pa. Superior Court affirm her dismissal of breach of contract and bad faith claims filed against Progressive Insurance Company.   In an opinion written pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) in Racioppi v. Progressive Ins. Co.,2015 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 415 , the Court dismissed the Plaintiff’s claims for UM benefits under her Progressive auto policy following an automobile accident.  The Plaintiff  had previously collected policy limits of the tortfeasor, Insured by Geico.

The Court held that both the breach of contract and bad faith counts suffered from the same fatal defect:  The Plaintiff failed to proved that she paid for a policy which was in force at the time of the collision.  While the Court conceded there were circumstances in which a bad faith claim could proceed in the absence of a breach of contract claim, it found that such circumstances were not presented by the Plaintiff’s UM claim at issue:

Since the breach of contract claim is without evidence, this component of the bad faith claim must immediately be rejected; Appellee-Defendants cannot have failed to pay in reckless disregard of the contract when Appellant-Plaintiff fails to offer any evidence that there was a contract between the parties on the date of the accident.

The Court dismissed the claims by way of a motion for summary judgment filed by Progressive.

Racioppi v. Progressive Ins. Co., 2015 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 415 (Shreeves-Johns, J.)