MARCH 2015 BAD FAITH CASES: PLAINTIFF STATED BAD FAITH CLAIM WHEN ALLEGING THAT INSURER’S ADJUSTER ADMITTED A BASIS FOR LOSS AS TO WHICH COVERAGE WAS DUE, BUT INSURER LATER DENIED COVERAGE (New Jersey Federal)

In Bannon v. Allstate Insurance Company, a Hurricane Sandy case, the policy provided “that coverage for dwellings or other structures did not include loss caused by ‘flood, including, but not limited to, surface water, waves, tidal water or overflow of any body of water or spray from any of these things, whether or not driven by wind.’” The insurer denied coverage.  However, in the Complaint, the insured alleged that the insurer’s adjuster had conceded that the home was destroyed by wind.  She further alleged “that other evidence, including statements from witnesses, photographic evidence, and professional opinions, support a finding that Plaintiff’s home was destroyed as a result of wind damage.” The insurer allegedly had called in an engineer to review the claim after the adjuster’s initial position.

The insured brought claims for breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, as well as breach of contract and under the Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”).  The insured asserted that the insurer, through its “agents, servants, and employees, improperly adjusted and denied her claims, failed to properly investigate the damage, and unjustifiably refused to perform its obligations.”  The insurer moved to dismiss. The issue was whether the insurer’s position was “fairly debatable.”

The Court stated: “The question of whether the claim is ‘fairly debatable’ is, clearly, a fact-specific question. Moreover, it is not obvious from the face of the … Complaint, including the alleged facts that [the insurer’s] adjuster initially opined that the damage to Plaintiff’s home was cause by wind, and that [the insurer] sent an engineer to inspect the property after its denial of coverage, that the denial of coverage for alleged wind damages was ‘fairly debatable.’ While this claim may be subject to dismissal on a summary judgment motion, following discovery, the … Complaint states sufficient facts to permit the claim to go forward.”

The Court further followed “the Third Circuit’s lead by predicting that the New Jersey Supreme Court would find that the New Jersey CFA applies to the payment of insurance benefits.”

The Court did dismiss the punitive damages claim: “Even if Plaintiff can show that Defendant acted in bad faith, Plaintiff has not pleaded facts that rise to the level of egregiousness necessary for punitive damages in an insurance contract case. Certainly the facts as alleged do not show actual malice, or a wanton and willful disregard of persons who might be harmed.”

Finally, the court dismissed the claim for attorneys’ fees, on the basis that Rule 4:42-9(a)(6) does not apply to first party claims, an issue which has been opened for review by New Jersey’s Supreme Court.

Date of Decision:  February 24, 2015

Bannon v. Allstate Insurance Company, Civil Action No. 14-1229 (FLW)(LHG), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21591 (D.N.J. February 24, 2015) (Wolfson, J.)