Policy Limits, Premium, Excluded From Jury In UM/UIM Case

discovery

PHILADELPHIA, July 19 – A federal judge has ruled in a UM/UIM case that neither the policy limits nor the amount of premium paid for the UM/UIM coverage was relevant, and should be excluded from admission into evidence at trial.

U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter granted a motion in limine filed by the insurer, Geico Insurance Company, to exclude these items from the jury’s consideration in a case brought by Darren Lucca for UM/UIM benefits.  Lucca originally filed a complaint in state court,  alleging breach of contract, bad faith, and violation of the UTPCPL, but after the case was removed to federal court only the breach of contract count remained at issue.

The only remaining issue in the case is the extent of damages Lucca allegedly suffered, which will determine whether he is entitled to any UM/UIM benefits, over and above the $75,000.00 Lucca received from the tortfeasor.

Judge Pratter wrote:

“On April 8, 2011, Lucca was involved in a car accident due to the negligence of another motorist, causing him to suffer various personal injuries. At the time, his car was insured by defendant Geico. . . As part of his policy, Lucca had underinsured motorist benefits. The other motorist had $100,000 in coverage through his insurance carrier, which Lucca alleges was insufficient to cover his injuries. . . “Geico denied his claim, believing that Mr. Lucca had received $75,000 from the other motorist’s insurance as an award in binding arbitration, not in settlement, and that therefore the other motorist was not underinsured.”

In granting Geico’s motion in limine, Pratter  observed the very limited amount of available case law on the subject, and ruled that neither the UM/UIM limits, nor the premium paid for those limits was relevant to the issue to be tried — the nature and extent, and therefore the value, of Lucca’s injuries:

“Geico filed a motion in limine, asking the Court to bar Lucca from offering evidence or testimony regarding the amount of underinsured motorist coverage provided for in the insurance policy at issue or regarding the amount of any premiums paid for the coverage. . . Indeed, not only is the policy limit irrelevant in this case, introducing evidence of the policy limit may very well serve to prejudice Geico by giving the jury an anchor number that has no bearing on Lucca’s damages. . . For these reasons, the Court will exclude at trial any mention of the policy limits or the amount of premiums paid. Once a verdict has been rendered by the jury on the amount of damages suffered by Lucca, the Court can mold the verdict appropriately to reflect the limits of both Lucca’s policy and the third party tortfeasor’s policy. . . ”

“The only issue for the jury to decide in this matter is the extent of Mr. Lucca’s injuries from the accident. That Mr. Lucca’s policy includes a $900,000 underinsured motorist limit or that his stepfather paid a certain amount in premiums for the policy does not have ‘any tendency to make (any fact at issue in this case) more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.”

Lucca v. Geico, E.D. Pa., July 7, 2016 (Pratter, J.)

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Six Red Flag Indicators of Reverse Bad Faith

 

Red-flags

While the debate still goes on across jurisdictions  as to whether and how the reverse bad faith of an insured serves as a defense to an insurer in a bad faith case, that reverse bad faith has a place of some sort in bad faith litigation is much less open to doubt.  Most jurisdictions recognize a place for consideration of the conduct of the insured in bad faith litigation, largely because it is grossly inequitable to judge a two-party interaction by the conduct of only one of those parties.  Fundamental fairness would seem to require that if the light of scrutiny is to be placed on the handling of an insurance claim, it be placed on two parties, not one.

Reverse bad faith comes in all shapes, sizes and shades.  Sometimes it is overt;  other times it is more passive.  Here are six of the biggest red flags indicating the presence of the reverse bad faith of the insured in an insurance claim:

  1.  The Early-Onset Time Limit Settlement Demand – This is one of the most obvious signs that the insured may be looking to construct a bad faith claim where one may well not otherwise exist.  This tactic is designed to pressure the insurer to pay a claim before it has had the full and fair opportunity to investigate it, or risk being painted as failing to settle within the limits after it is too late.   It is also the subject of an earlier  post  on how to defend against them.
  2. Refusal to Reduce A Policy Limits Demand – An intractable policy limits demand by an insured can be the functional equivalent of a “low-ball” settlement offer from the insurer.   In Pennsylvania, for example, courts have held that a limits demand by an insured can be tantamount to expressing no interest in compromise, which in turn may relieve the insurer of settlement responsibility.  Zapille v. Amex Assurance,  2007 WL 1651271 (Pa. Super. 2007)  As a result, an insured’s failure to contribute to a settlement-conducive environment is relevant to bad faith analysis.
  3. Delay – This one is the easiest to spot among The Big Six,  and relatively easy to prove.   Most courts consider the insured’s responsibility for delaying the life span of an insurance claim in bad faith litigation. Some courts have gone so far as to say that an insurer has a reasonable expectation that information requested will be provided promptly and accurately.  Delay which may be considered reverse bad faith is not merely calendar delay occasioned by the insured’s failure to respond, it can also be delay cause by the insured’s giving false, misleading, or partial answers to questions or requests for information. See, e.g., Sadel v. Berkshire Life Insurance Company of America et al., No. 09-612, 2011 WL 292239 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 31, 2011).
  4. Failure To Cooperate In Investigation – this is a close cousin of delay.  Non-cooperation is often most seen in an insured’s failure to produce medical authorizations, requested medical, wage, and property records, or the failure to  submit to an examination under oath, or an independent medical examination.
  5. Inconsistent, Exaggerated, and Untruthful Information – If an insured presents answers for information at various times which conflict with each other, or are plainly exaggerated or not truthful, this is fairly reliable evidence of reverse bad faith.  At a minimum, it may justify the insurer’s denial of a claim, extension of investigation, or lower settlement offer.
  6. Is The Insured Represented? – While this red flag is not intended to paint all practitioners with  the same broad brush, it would be foolish not to identify this factor as a potential red flag in the ferreting out of reverse bad faith.  I have lost count of the number of depositions of insureds I have taken in which I receive only a blank stare in response to the questions, “Do you know what bad faith is?” or “Can you tell me how the insurer committed bad faith in the handling of your insurance claim?” Insureds in and of themselves are not prone to the advocacy which tends to present itself when a trained legal professional has a contingent interest in the outcome of an insurance claim.

If any of these six factors are present in an insurance claim, it could well be that there may be some conduct on the part of the insured which the fact finder should consider in the bad faith analysis.

For more information on identifying and defending against reverse bad faith in the claims process, reach me at chaddick@dmclaw.com or 717-731-4800.

Bad Faith Expert Permitted To Testify Against Progressive, Judge Rules

expert

KANSAS CITY, Kan., March 9 – A Kansas federal judge has ruled that an expert may testify on Plaintiff’s behalf in a bad faith case against Progressive Insurance, and that the expert can criticize Progressive’s handling of a third party auto liability claim.

In Grant M. Nelson v. Progressive Northwestern Insurance Co., No. 15-7454, D. Kan.; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28952, District Judge John W. Lungstrom denied Progressive’s motion to preclude the Plaintiff’s expert from testifying.  Nelson sued Progressive for bad faith in the handling of his third party claim after suing and obtaining an excess verdict against a Progressive insured for personal injuries sustained in a car accident.

Progressive’s insured, Hardacre, had a $50,000 policy limit.  Following non jury trial of the personal injury case, a   state court awarded Nelson more than $530,000.  During the underlying case, Progressive offered the policy limit on Hardacre’s behalf, but Nelson declined to accept it, demanding $1 million.  Hardacre also assigned his rights against Progressive to Nelson in exchange for Nelson’s agreement not to collect against Nelson.

Nelson sued Progressive for bad faith in state court, and Progressive removed to federal court.   In the case, Progressive sought to bar opinion evidence from Plaintiff’s expert Jim Leatzow.  Judge Lungstrum rejected Progressive’s claim that Leatzow was unqualified because he had no specific auto claims handling experience.  He also rejected Progressive’s contention that Leatzow, in opining that Progressive’s investigation was insufficient, did not consider all relevant material in the claims investigation.  The judge wrote:

“Mr. Leatzow’s failure to find fault with every investigative step actually taken by Progressive is not remarkable and does not provide a basis for exclusion. Progressive will be free to cross-examine Mr. Leatzow at trial concerning the weight he gave to particular facts in forming his opinions, and the Court will assign only such weight to those opinions as warranted by the evidence. The Court denies Progressive’s motion to strike.”

While conceding the Plaintiff’s bad faith case was weak, the judge also denied Progressive’s motion for summary judgment in the bad faith case on the merits:

“there is at least some evidence that could support a finding that some percentage of fault would have been apportioned to Ms. Hardacre… the seriousness of plaintiff’s injury meant that even a small allocation of fault to Ms. Hardacre could have exhausted the policy limit of $50,000, leaving the possibility of an excess judgment. Thus, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the Court concludes that a question of fact remains concerning whether Progressive acted negligently or in bad faith in handling the claim and in failing to attempt to secure a settlement for the policy limit to protect the interest of its insured.”

The judge also ruled that Progressive’s tender of the limit did not moot the bad faith claims made by Nelson.

Grant M. Nelson v. Progressive Northwestern Insurance Co., No. 15-7454, D. Kan.; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28952

 

Winning the Arson/Fraud Case – Part II

In an earlier post, we examined some key points to structuring and winning a civil arson/fraud trial against an insured suspected of misconduct in the making of an insurance claim.  We resume our examination in Part II of Winning the Arson/Fraud Case.

Your Claims Adjuster and Claims Witnesses Must Be Demonstrably More Credible Than The Insured(s)

This is a vital assessment which must made in an objective, detached manor.  Hoping that your claims staff will appear more credible than the insured is not sufficient grounds to proceed to try the arson/fraud case.  A reasoned, detached analysis of the insurer witnesses must be done to determine whether they, individually and as a whole, will stand up to the scrutiny of the jury, and be judged more credible.

Beware of the landmines here. How can claims staff be cross-examined?  Are there any troubling issues in their employment histories?  Do they appear to be partial or biased based on the documentation in the claims file and the claims logs?  Are any of them disgruntled in some way or worse, disgruntled in some way and not forthcoming about it.

Next to the law enforcement witnesses, the claims witnesses are the most important pieces in winning the arson/fraud trial.  They deserve detailed vetting as soon as possible in the process.

Who Let The Dogs Out?

This is going to sound silly.  But this indicator has almost never in 25 years of practicing law led me astray from assessing the proper cases to take to trial.

Did the insured have any pets?  Are they normally kept inside?  Did they perish in the fire, or was there some unusual event or explanation which led them to being out of the house at the time of the fire?

Arsonists love their dogs like anybody else.  The average one-off arsonist is simply neither aware enough nor disciplined enough to sacrifice a family pet  to create the impression of a fire of actual unknown origin.   Electrical malfunctions and other accidental fires do not take time to lead otherwise confined pets to safety before they begin.  Almost all arsonists do, however.  The notable exception to this guideline is the rage or anger fire in which the arsonist attempts to harm a pet of the object of his anger — which is a very, very small percentage of intentionally set fires, in my experience.

Look For Mistakes

Some arsonists are more skilled than others. Few are hired professionals, and the amateurs make plenty of mistakes.  Combining the stress of the circumstances which would lead an insured to commit arson for insurance benefits,  and a basic lack of experience in such activity generally leads to a break or two in the fire investigation —  telltale signs of intentionally set fire versus fire of accidental cause and origin.

The following mistakes have all occurred in cases I have handled, including one case in which all of the mistakes occurred in the same fire.  Some of these are sure to strike you as fantastical but they all are true:

  • multiple points of origin which did not communicate with each other;
  • failure to ventilate the fire by opening doors and/or windows;
  • leaving incriminating documents such as  a mortgage foreclosure notice dated within 10 days of the fire  in the area of origin;
  • failing to dispose of lighters/ignition sources in the areas or origin;
  • failing  to plug in electrical appliances which were later offered by the insured as probable sources of an accidental fire
  • writing an apology to a spouse in soot on a window following the fire (this one is not so much as a mistake as it is a confession of the subconscious, I imagine)
  • using a cell phone to call a business associate about the fire twenty minutes before calling 911 Emergency Services to report the fire.

The case in which all of these mistakes occurred in the same fire  was readily identified as an arson/fraud case which should be tried.   And while that particular case is an outlier to put it mildly, most arson fires do not go perfectly for the arsonist, and mistakes can be identified.  They should be pointed out and shown to the jury.

Do Not Forget Damages

In the bustle and effort spent establishing the insured’s liability for arson/fraud, the fact that many statutes provide a right of reimbursement and recovery to the insure is lost, and insurers as a result do not take sufficient advantage of recouping expenses and costs related to investigating the fire, and recouping claims dollars which may have been paid out during the pendency of the claim.

In many ways, an insurer used to being a defendant must become a plaintiff fur purposes of not only putting on an arson/fraud case, but also for putting on a damages case as well.  Costs and claims dollars must be tracked, organized, and presented in the form of cogent damages exhibits and/or summary exhibits, preferably using the same trial presentation software as discussed in the first half of this post.  SIU and other special investigators employed by the insurers, and claims staff can authenticate these items for admission into evidence.

Some states provide for recovery of multiples of such costs, and attorneys fees in the form of penalties.  For that reason, they should not be overlooked if the decision to try the arson fraud case has been made.

Arson/Fraud Cases Can Be Won

While it does require thought and effort, the right arson/fraud cases can be won by insurers who take the time to identify good candidates, and work those candidates up properly for trial.  The prosecution of civil arson/fraud claims can also be a source for the insurer to recoup costs and claims dollars thought to have been lost in the investigation and payment of fraudulent claims.

C.J. Haddick

 

 

Winning The Arson/Fraud Case: Part I

Many jurisdictions provide insurers with civil claims for damages and/or civil penalties in the event they sustain losses caused by insured misconduct including arson/insurance fraud.  Yet insurers are for the most part reluctant to take advantage of these provisions, fearing the arson/fraud case as either too costly or not good for company image.

These cases are both winnable and, not unpopular where there is a basis to proceed. Here is a quick survey of some key points to winning the arson/fraud case:

Pick The Right Case Before Buying In

To say that there are winnable fraud and arson cases is not to say that all cases of suspected fraud and arson are winnable.  Perhaps a full 50% or more of determining whether a civil arson or fraud prosecution will be successful rides on selecting the correct cases for prosecution.   In this regard, experience on both the claims team side and the outside counsel side is important when making this assessment, as is the collaborative process between the two.  Case selection must be a  joint exercise.

The topic of selecting the proper cases for trial could fill volumes, but some general guidelines will be helpful here:   The fire science in the case must clearly point to incendiary origin.  Motive, usually financial, is technically not required, but I have never successfully prosecuted a civil fraud or arson case without explaining to the jury why someone would want or need to try to burn their own home to the ground.  It is a hard concept for most people to wrap their heads around without explaining why to them.  Other possible non-financial motives include revenge, or “rage” fires, but my educated guess is that financial motive is the motive in play for more than every 8 of 10 arson fires.

The candidates for trial are likely to strike  you in the face; they have a way of standing out.  Regardless, however, analysis and due diligence of the merits of  such candidates should always be done before a final decision is made.

Be Mindful of the Burden of Proof

This is sometimes overlooked until the case is well underway.  However, it should be one of the first things considered before a decision is made to try an arson/fraud case.

In many jurisdictions the burden of proof for establishing arson/fraud is higher than the standard civil preponderance of the evidence standard, e.g., the clear and convincing evidence standard.  The burden of proof should be considered at the outset, when analyzing a case for possible use of arson/fraud defenses, or for the affirmative seeking of compensation on behalf of the insurer victimized by the alleged arson/fraud.  If the evidence is not so good that the burden of proof will be met, the case is not a good candidate for an arson/fraud trial.

Develop a timeline

Just as motive is crucial to success (addressed in Part II of this post), so is explaining to a jury precisely what happened and when and, most importantly, answering the question of whether the insured had the opportunity to start a fire at home within the appropriate window of time.  The time line must be used to eliminate any potential alibis which can undermine successfully putting on an arson/fraud case.

When I suggest here that a timeline must be developed, I suggest also that it must be developed in a way that a jury can 1.) visually see the timeline of events (preferably via software like PowerPoint or TrialDirector); and 2.) understand the time line so that it makes sense, and does not look in any way at variance with the evidence.

Pictures Pictures Pictures

This is a close relative of the timeline tip, and arguably even more important.  Jurors today more than ever view jury trials as television in the courtroom, albeit on a larger scale.  They would much prefer to be educated by the insurer, law enforcement investigators, and counsel about the cause and origin of the fire, than to merely be told what caused a fire.  The will be comfortable only after coming to a conclusion on their own, rather than taking the insurer’s word for it, even if that word is coming from an expert.

Demonstrative evidence, preferably photo, animation, video and other visual media presented on trial software is the best way to convey cause and origin information.  With photographs and demonstrative evidence, experts can discuss and demonstrate origin points at the fire scene, point out burn patterns, and other critical visual evidence to give the jury the comfort it needs to make a finding that the insured essentially committed a crime.

Scale model fire scene diagrams, photos of documentary evidence (such as financial papers, tax return summaries, etc.) and fire scene photos and video evidence all aid the jury in assessing the arson/fraud case.

We will review additional keys to winning the arson/fraud case in Part II of this post.