In Ryan v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, the Court denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss a claim brought by its insureds under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), dismissed the insureds’ claim for punitive damages, and denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss the insureds’ claim for attorneys’ fees.
The dispute arose after the home owned by the insureds was damaged during Hurricane Sandy. The insureds contended that the insurer “unreasonably and in bad faith denied coverage and underpaid for the damage.” The insureds further asserted that the insurer’s agents “improperly adjusted and denied [the insureds’] claims without adequate investigation, even though [the insureds’] losses were covered by the Policy.” Among other things, the insureds also claimed that the insurer was “deceptive in the adjustment of this claim” by “fraudulently creating values and assigning them to the covered loss to increase its own profitability” and by “fraudulently telling its policyholder that the losses were not covered despite evidence that they were.” Finally, the insureds argued that the insurer’s response to the claim was part of “an ongoing, widespread and continuous scheme to defraud its insureds in the payment of benefits under their policies of insurance.”
In the complaint, the insureds assert claims for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and violation of the NJCFA. The insurer moved to dismiss the NJCFA claim, as well as the insureds’ claims for punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs.
The insurer argued that the NJCFA claim should be dismissed because the NJCFA “does not apply to disputes about insurance benefits or coverage.” The Court acknowledged that federal district courts in New Jersey “have split on whether to dismiss NJCFA claims based on an insurer’s denial of benefits.” However, the Court pointed to case law from the Third Circuit, which noted that the NJCFA applies to a person’s fraudulent conduct whether it occurs “in connection with the sale or advertisement of any merchandise or real estate, or with the subsequent performance of such person as aforesaid.”
Here, the Court found that the insureds’ NJCFA claim goes to the insurer’s “subsequent performance of its obligations under the insurance contract.” The Court noted that the insureds do not merely allege that the insurer underpaid their benefits, which would only amount to breach of contract, but allege that the insurer acted fraudulently when investigating the property damage. Because of this allegation, the insureds “make clear that their NJCFA claim targets [the insurer’s] conduct in performing its contract obligations – which distinguished their NJCFA claim from the type of mere underpayment allegation” that concerned the New Jersey Appellate Division when deciding whether to dismiss NJCFA claims based on an insurer’s denial of benefits. Thus, the Court refused to dismiss the insureds’ NJCFA claims because it predicted the New Jersey Supreme Court would apply the act to the insurer’s allegedly deceptive conduct in investigating the insureds’ property damage.
The Court next dismissed the insureds’ claim for punitive damages, and noted that “deliberate, overt, and dishonest dealings, insult and personal abuse constitute torts entirely distinct from the bad-faith claim.” Because the insureds did not plead facts “that rise to the level of egregiousness necessary for punitive damages in an insurance contract case,” the Court dismissed the punitive damages claim.
Finally, the Court found that the insureds may be entitled to attorneys’ fees. The insureds requested attorneys’ fees in connection with their claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and in their Request for Relief, but the Court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court has stated that the rule granting attorneys’ fees in an insurance action “does not apply when the insured brings direct suit against his insurer to enforce casualty or other direct coverage.” Thus, the Court dismissed the insureds’ request for attorneys’ fees arising from their breach of implied covenant claim. However, the Court acknowledged that the insureds may be entitled to attorneys’ fees by virtue of their claims arising under the NJCFA, which mandates the recovery of attorneys’ fees. As such, the Court denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss the insureds’ claim for attorneys’ fees in the Request for Relief.