Sometimes, lengthy litigation is described as an odyssey, warranted or not. In the Berg v. Nationwide case, the litigation has gone on as long as the times covered in both the Odyssey and the Iliad; and this most recent decision may not be the final word in its history.
In this 2-1 decision, the Superior Court reversed the trials judge’s $21 Million bad faith award against the insurer, and directed judgment for the insurer.
The essence of the majority opinion is in its final paragraph: “The trial court engaged in a limited and highly selective analysis of the facts and drew the most malignant possible inferences from the facts it chose to consider. We do not believe our appellate standard of review, circumscribed as it is, requires or even permits us to affirm the trial court’s decision in this case. This is especially so given Plaintiffs’ burden of proving their case by clear and convincing evidence.”
By contrast, the dissenting opinion begins: “Because it is not this Court’s role to usurp the fact-finding power of the trial court by its own interpretation of the factual and testimonial evidence, I respectfully dissent from the Majority’s decision to remand this matter for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.”
This case started with damage to plaintiffs’ car in September of 1996. The first step on this long road was between treating the car as a total loss vs. repairing it. The expenses at issue were $25,000 for a total loss and approximately half that for repairs. Under the insurance contract at issue, the carrier had significant control over the repair process itself. The insurer chose repairs, and the struggle begins in earnest with the beleaguered history of those repairs, and the litigation born from it.
Suit was filed in January 1998. The matter was bifurcated for trial purposes. In 2004, the first phase went to a jury, on fraud, conspiracy, and consumer protection law claims (UTPCPL). The jury found for plaintiffs on the UTPCPL claim, and awarded $1,925 against the auto repair shop and $295 against the insurer. The second trial phase was before the judge only, on the issues of treble damages, and statutory bad faith, both non-jury decisions. In 2007, the trial judge ruled for the insurer on the Bergs’ bad faith claim.
They appealed, but in 2008, the Superior Court ruled that they had waived all issues on appeal by failing to serve the trial court with a copy of their Rule 1925(b) statement. In 2010, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling and remanded to the Superior Court.
In 2012, reviewing the appeal on the merits, the Superior Court reversed and remanded the 2007 trial court decision. As discussed in our May 2012 blog posting, among other things, the Superior Court concluded that the trial court failed to consider various claims handling issues during the course of repairs and thereafter, as well as failing to consider the violation of other statutes in determining bad faith. Moreover, while the trial court would not consider the $900,000 spent to date by the carrier in defending the action, the Superior Court said this could be considered as evidence of bad faithfocusing on the concept of claims handling, and tying the amount to the claims handling.
After remand, a non-jury trial was held in 2014, and the trial judge found substantial evidence of bad faith in the carrier’s conduct, awarding $18,000,000 in punitive damages and $3,000,000 in attorneys’ fees. Again, this decision is discussed in our 2014 blog post.
On April 9, 2018, a 2-1 majority reversed that judgment, and entered judgment for the insurer. The dissenter would have affirmed. We discuss the highlights below, and commend the reader to the attached opinions for the lengthy drill-down detail the majority exercised in reaching its decision, with some of the same in the dissent.
Highlights of the 2018 Majority Opinion
The most significant aspect of the majority opinion is its willingness to drill down into the factual record, and to put the trial judge’s factual findings and conclusions under very close analysis. The majority recognized that deference is due the trial court as trier of fact, but would not give deference where findings of fact were not supported in the record, and where conclusions about the factual record did not have the support of actual facts in the record. For the majority, hand-in-glove with the necessity for this oversight function is the heightened burden of proof in statutory bad faith cases, i.e., proof by clear and convincing evidence.
Specifically, the majority stated: “This Court will reverse a finding of bad faith where the trial court’s ‘critical factual findings are either unsupported by the record or do not rise to the level of bad faith.’” (emphasis in original). The majority added that the “[factfinder] may not be permitted to reach its verdict merely on the basis of speculation and conjecture, but there must be evidence upon which logically its conclusion may be based. Therefore, when a party who has the burden of proof relies upon circumstantial evidence and inferences reasonably deducible therefrom, such evidence, in order to prevail, must be adequate to establish the conclusion sought and must so preponderate in favor of that conclusion as to outweigh in the mind of the fact-finder any other evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom which are inconsistent therewith.”
After doing its own analysis of the same trial court findings of fact, the dissent replied that: “The majority vacates the judgment ‘because the record does not support many of the trial court’s critical findings of fact.’ …. In doing so, however, the Majority tacitly admits that other critical findings of the trial court are supported by clear and convincing evidence.” (Emphasis in original).
Again, we commend the reader to the attached majority opinion for its fact analysis, and the dissent’s analysis of the facts it concludes support affirming the trial court.
As stated by the majority: “The trial court found that Appellant hid and refused to give discoverable material to Plaintiffs, never produced photographs of the Jeep taken during the appraisal process, and refused to produce [a] report until ordered to do so during discovery. To the extent the trial court based its finding of bad faith upon discovery violations, it committed clear error. While it is true that a finding of bad faith under section 8371 may be premised upon an insurer’s conduct occurring before, during or after litigation, … we have refused to recognize that an insurer’s discovery practices constitute grounds for a bad faith claim under section 8371, absent the use of discovery to conduct an improper investigation.”
The Bad Faith statute “is designed to provide a remedy for bad faith conduct by an insurer in its capacity as an insurer for breach of its fiduciary duty to an insured by virtue of the parties’ insurance policy and not as a legal adversary in a lawsuit filed against it by an insured. Discovery violations are governed under the exclusive provisions of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. Nonetheless, even when considering these issues, we still find no merit to them supporting a bad faith claim under section 8371 by clear and convincing evidence.”
The majority recognized, among other things, that while there was an unwarranted refusal to produce an unredacted claims log, because the redacted material included no “smoking gun” this did not go beyond a discovery dispute subject to sanctions under rules governing discovery. Thus, it could not be used as actionable bad faith conduct subject to statutory relief under section 8371.
The majority characterized the trial judge’s decision as improperly relying on an earlier Superior Court Opinion to establish a fact in the present case. The prior Opinion involved a ruling against the same insurer, but involved another party with a different dispute. That prior Opinion found the existence of a claim manual, in evidence in that case, material to its finding of bad faith because the manual directed bad faith practices. The Berg trial judge used that earlier Superior Court Opinion as a basis to include the same manual as part of the bad faith evidence in the Berg case.
On appeal, the Berg majority refused to permit this factual assumption about the existence of an internal manual directing bad faith coverage practices. Under the clear and convincing evidence standard, there had to be actual facts adduced in this case establishing the manual’s existence.
The majority further rejected the trial court’s using the length of the Berg litigation as evidence of bad faith. The majority had done some analysis rebutting that notion during its review of the record, and declined “further to conduct a detailed analysis of nearly two decades of highly contentious litigation and we note that the trial court did not do so in its findings. Plaintiffs had the right to prosecute their case zealously within the bounds of the law, just as Appellant had the right to defend itself if it believed its personnel did not act in bad faith. We cannot arbitrarily impose a limit on the time and resources an insurer spends in defending a bad faith action.”
The majority observed the trial court opinion was over 100 pages, and “devoted substantial portions … to matters not of record.” The majority was “troubled by [the] failure to limit … analysis to the facts of this case and applicable law.” The majority gave a number of examples of passages that concerned them. Excerpts of these non-record conclusions, which the majority describes as the trial court having “offered its thoughts”, concerning the insurance industry are quoted from the trial court’s opinion.
We quote just the first example of these conclusions/thoughts that the majority found to be outside the record. “[W]hat [p]laintiff, and more importantly, what lawyer in his right mind will compete with a conglomerate insurance company if the insurance company can drag the case out 18 years and is willing to spend $3 million in defense expenses to keep the policyholder from getting just compensation under the contract. Its message is 1) that it is a defense minded carrier, 2) do not mess with us if you know what is good for you, 3) you cannot run with the big dogs, 4) there is no level playing field to be had in your case, 5) you cannot afford it and what client will pay thousands of dollars to fight the battle, 6) so we can get away with anything we want to, and 7) you cannot stop us.” The majority clearly found such language out of bounds.
The majority’s conclusion.
In its conclusion, the majority states, among other things: “We disagree with the Dissent’s assertion that we are substituting our own findings for those of the trial court. Rather, our review of the extensive record in this matter convinces us that the trial court’s findings are not supported by the facts of record and our citations to the certified record belie any assertion that we have improperly substituted our findings for the trial court’s. The law permits a finding of bad faith only on clear and convincing evidence. Clear and convincing evidence is evidence that is “so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing as to enable either a judge or jury to come to a clear conviction, without hesitancy, of the truth of the precise facts in issue.’ ….The trial court’s highly selective citation to a voluminous record plainly failed to meet that standard. Respectfully, we believe the Dissent, under the guise of strict adherence to the standard of review, makes the same error.”
Date of Decision: April 9, 2018
Berg v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, Pennsylvania Superior Court, No. 713 MDA 2015, 2018 Pa. Super. LEXIS 317 (Pa. Super. Ct. April 9, 2018) (Stabile and Ott, JJ., with Stevens, J., dissenting)
The majority opinion can be found here.
The dissenting opinion can be found here.