In Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company v. Caris, the underlying facts involved the alleged fraudulent sale of a property with contamination. The insureds entered a consent judgment and assigned their rights against the carrier to the buyers. The buyers then brought various claims against the insurer, including bad faith claims.
The court dismissed a New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act claim because the allegation was that the insurer failed to provide benefits, not that it procured the insurance policy through fraud.
The assignees also had raised a negligence per se claim for improper claims handling and failure to give timely notice that no coverage would be provided. The court found that the assignees had no standing to bring a claim based upon negligence, as such a claim could not be assigned to them prior to judgment being entered. Moreover, to the extent this was pleaded as an alternative to asserting a bad faith claim, no such cause of action exists under New Jersey law: “[A]n insurance company may be liable to a policyholder for bad faith in the context of paying benefits under a policy. The scope of that duty is not to be equated with simple negligence.” Finally, “there is no private right of action for policyholders against their insurers based on UCSPA violations or negligence.”
Turning to the bad faith claim: the insured “must show: (1) the insurer lacked a reasonable basis for its denying benefits, and (2) the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded the lack of a reasonable basis for denying the claim.” New Jersey courts apply the “fairly debatable” standard, meaning “if there are material issues of disputed fact which would preclude summary judgment as a matter of law, an insured cannot maintain a cause of action for bad faith.” “In the case of processing delay, bad faith is established by showing no valid reasons existed to delay processing the claim and the insurance company knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that no valid reasons supported the delay.” This is essentially the same as the fairly debatable standard, and the “mere failure to settle a debatable claim does not constitute bad faith.”
Despite a litany of bad faith allegations, the assignees could not establish the insurer lacked a reasonable basis to deny coverage, or that its coverage position – that there was no property damage caused by an occurrence during the policy period – was unreasonable. Thus, “[w]hen a carrier proffers ‘plausible reasons for the denial of coverage’ and ‘demonstrates that there is, at the very least, genuine questions regarding whether [an insured’s] claims fall within the coverage provided,’ dismissal of a related bad faith claim is proper, even on a motion to dismiss.” The burden in this case was on the insureds to prove the property damage occurred during the policy period, and the court found that issue was fairly debatable. Thus, it granted the motion to dismiss the bad faith claim.
Date of Decision: March 14, 2016
Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Caris, No. 14-5330, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33407 (D.N.J. Mar. 14, 2016) (Rodriguez, J.)