February 2017 Bad Faith Cases: Insure Bad Faith at Issue in Evaluating Settlement Payment; Advice of Counsel Not at Issue Unless Asserted (Middle District)

An insurer sued its appointed defense counsel in connection with counsel’s defense of a UIM claim. The insurer claimed that counsel failed to assure that the UIM arbitration panel was instructed on the limits of insurance ($2 million), and that the carrier was subjected to the risk of having to pay an excess arbitration award of nearly $4 million above policy limits. The UIM plaintiff settled the claim with the carrier, which included receiving the full amount of the arbitration award above policy limits. Defense counsel asserted a defense of contributory negligence based on the insurer’s alleged bad faith handling of the UIM claim; and further argued that the settlement was not entirely for the $ 6 million arbitration award (to which sum it was identical), but included monetary consideration for the UIM plaintiff’s threatened bad faith claim as well.

The court granted partial summary judgment to strike the affirmative defense of contributory negligence, but only to the extent that this defense was based on the insurer’s conduct that was not causally related to the arbitration award. The court accepted counsel’s argument that part of the settlement payment was to get a release for the bad faith claim, and thus was part of the damages at issue. Therefore, it would permit some discovery on the argument that the insurer acted in bad faith in handling the underlying UIM claim, and paid some portion of the settlement to address that issue.

Thus, the Court found that “the fact and extent of [the insurer’s] bad faith handling of the [UIM] claim and concomitant exposure to bad faith liability are directly relevant to the question of the amount of damages it sustained due to [defense counsel’s] conduct. If [the insurer] is successful on its malpractice claim, it will have to prove actual losses that it suffered as a result of Defendants’ negligence. Because [the insurer] did not pay the arbitration award directly, it cannot claim that the excess award is the damages it now seeks. However, if [the insurer] attempts to prove that the settlement payment constitutes actual losses proximately caused by Defendants’ negligence, it must also prove with reasonable certainty what portion of the settlement payment in excess of its policy limits was paid to satisfy the arbitration award. Discovery on [the insurer’s] exposure to bad faith liability is therefore relevant to the scope of damages [the insurer] alleges to have sustained. And because [the insurer’s] bad faith conduct affects the amount of damages sought, the Court will not preclude Defendants from pursuing discovery on … bad faith.”

Next, the court addressed discovery issues.

The carrier had argued that certain documents in its own files were subject to the attorney-client privilege or work product doctrine. In addition, defense counsel sought discovery of the files of the attorney that replaced him in the UIM case.

As to the second category, the court could not rule because the privilege log was inadequate. The privilege log “entries do not contain specific sender and recipient information, and the Attorney Work Product entries do not state the specific party who created the work product. Additionally, the descriptions are too vague to permit the Court to find that each element of the privilege claimed is satisfied. [The insurer] therefore must supplement its privilege log with this information in order for the Court to determine whether the documents are in fact privileged.”

As to the insurer’s own documents, the court found that the work product doctrine applied to claim notes containing the mental impressions and strategies of the insurer’s attorneys and representatives. These notes were authored by an attorney or claim handler of the insurer.

The insurer also sought to withhold documents that were sent by the defendant defense counsel to the insurer regarding post-arbitration strategy. The court found the attorney-client privilege waived once the insurer sued its attorney, and that the attorney himself held the work product privilege, not the insurer.

The court found the carrier did not waive the privilege concerning communications with in-house counsel, and with the outside counsel subsequently retained. The carrier had disclosed a limited privileged document, but the court found this did not constitute waiver of the privilege as to every communication with counsel.

The court further found that the insurer was not asserting an advice of counsel defense, which could waive the privilege. The court observed that “an attorney’s ‘[a]dvice is not in issue merely because it is relevant, and does not necessarily become in issue merely because the attorney’s advice might affect the client’s state of mind in a relevant manner.’” “Rather, ‘[t]he advice of counsel is placed in issue where the client asserts a claim or defense, and attempts to prove that claim or defense by disclosing or describing an attorney client communication.’” Those circumstances were not present.

Date of Decision: January 20, 2017

N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co. v. Brady, No. 15-2236, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8268 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 20, 2017) (Caputo, J.)