"> On Remand Trial Court Must Review Potential Bad Faith Claims

April 2017 Bad Faith Case: On Remand Trial Court Must Review Potential Bad Faith Claims For: (1) Denial of Coverage, (2) Independent Claims Handling Allegations, (3) Pleading Defenses In Bad Faith, and (4) Denial of Duty To Defend (Pennsylvania Superior Court)

In this case, among other things, the Superior Court stated the principle that statutory bad faith can exist independently of the insurer’s denying a benefit under the policy. The Court relied upon its earlier decisions in Condio (2006) and Nealy (1997). It did not address what effect, if any, that the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company had on those opinions, or to what extent Toy might limit the scope of cognizable claims for statutory bad faith to denial of benefits or conduct that is intertwined with a denial of benefits.

As to the particulars, this case involved title insurance. The insured believed she purchased two parcels, but the deed and title insurance policy only set out the legal description for one parcel. When she attempted to sell the properties years after her initial purchase, the potential buyer withdrew from the agreement and sued for damages because she had promised to convey both properties, but could not. She brought a third party action against the title insurer.

The Court found that the error in describing only one parcel in the original deed was in no way the insured’s fault. The insured alleged “that she … entered into a contract under which [the insurer] agreed to provide ‘real estate transactional services’ — including title searches and the drafting and filing of a deed — for her purchase of the property, and to issue a policy insuring title to the property.” The insured alleged that the title insurer was liable to her because the erroneous description on the deed and “in the Policy resulted from [the insurer’s] failure to conduct a proper title search and to provide a policy covering all of 4 Mill Street and the entire premises covered by her Agreement of Sale.”

In terms of insurance coverage, the Court looked at case law on reasonable expectations and estoppel. It cited numerous cases where mistakes in property descriptions could not be used to avoid coverage. It also looked to general case law on reasonable expectations, where the insurer could not evade the consequences of promises or conduct of its own agents in leading the insured to believe that certain coverage was being provided. (The Court cited the seminal Tonkovic case. It also cited Pressley v. Travelers, 817 A.2d 1131 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2003), where the agent at issue had authority to bind the insurer as its agent, but apparently was the insured’s agent as well). Thus, the court reversed the trial court’s finding that no coverage was due as a matter of law based on the policy language.

As to the bad faith claim, the finding of potential coverage undermined much of the insurer’s argument that it could not have acted in bad faith. In addition, the court found there could be distinct claims for “claims handling conduct which occurred over a six month period before finally advising” that coverage was denied. This would need to be addressed on remand. The Court further stated that the insured made bad faith allegations that the insurer improperly raised defenses alleging that the insured failed to cooperate and that the insured’s own actions, or that of her counsel, were the proximate cause of her own losses. The Court instructed the trial court to review these claims for bad faith on remand.

Finally, the Court remanded the bad faith claim on the insured’s argument that the insurer failed in its duty to defend the insured from the buyer’s claims for breach of the sales agreement.

Date of Decision: April 11, 2017

Michael v. Stock, No. 1229 EDA 2017, Pa. Super. LEXIS 245 (Pa. Super. Ct. Apr. 11, 2017) (Fitzgerald, Olson, Solano, JJ.)