"> November 2016 Bad Faith Cases | Filing Declaratory Judgement Action

November 2016 Bad Faith Cases: No Bad Faith For Filing Declaratory Judgement Action; and Where Record Shows Genuine Investigation and Not Putative Predisposition Toward Denial (Third Circuit, Pennsylvania) (Not precedential)

This non-precedential Third Circuit opinion affirmed the trial court’s opinion granting summary judgment to the insurer on a statutory bad faith claim. (We will not repeat the facts, but instead link to our previous summary of the trial court opinion).

In reciting the elements of bad faith, among other things, the appellate panel stated that because the carrier “ultimately paid the full policy limit, Appellants’ bad faith claim is based on the company’s investigation of [the] claim.” The court cited the Superior Court’s decision Rancosky v. Wash. National Ins. Co., for the proposition that “Bad faith conduct includes lack of good faith investigation into the facts.” The court does not address the issue of whether poor claims handling alone, without the denial of a benefit, can be bad faith. The trial court had noted that a long enough delay in handling the claim can be treated as the equivalent of a denial of a benefit, but the Third Circuit did not address this nuance.

(Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has taken up Rancosky to give address to the elements of what constitutes a statutory bad faith claim.)

In addressing the merits, the appellate court first looked at plaintiff’s assertions that there was a “predisposition toward denial” and that the insurer “focused upon exclusion and accepted no facts contrary to its initial conclusion” (theories that harken bank to the 2003 Luzerne County Court decision). However, the Third Circuit agreed that “the claims file showed that [the insurer] evaluated [the]claim, consulted with legal counsel, and tried to determine” the key issue of employment status.

Moreover, the insurer did not deny the claim, but filed a declaratory judgment action to determine this key issue and how it affected coverage. The insurer’s ultimately paying the policy’s liability limit demonstrated its willingness to consider new evidence and adjust its position. The court added that: “In any event, [the insurer] had the right to investigate [the]claim and determine whether it was covered under the policy, regardless of whether [the insurer] initially sought to exclude the claim. Citing its own prior precedent: “[A]n insurer does not act in bad faith by investigating and litigating legitimate issues of coverage.”

The appellate court agreed that there was no bad faith under Pennsylvania law in filing a declaratory judgment action to seek a coverage determination, to resolve legal ambiguities after it had investigated the facts of the claim. The court observed that the insurer had consulted with in-house counsel before the decision to file the declaratory judgment action, showing that the insurer was still considering the insured’s claim.

The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the bad faith claim.

Date of decision: October 4, 2016

Bodnar v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., No. 15-3485, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 17903 (3d Cir. Oct. 4, 2016) (Hardiman, McKee, Rendell, JJ.)