In Torres v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company, the insureds brought claims for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and bad faith denial of insurance benefits after the insureds’ home suffered damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
The insureds alleged that the insurer “improperly denied at least a portion of the claim without adequate investigation” and they claimed to have been “underpaid to date for the damages sustained as a result of Hurricane Sandy.” The insureds further argued that the insurer “failed to affirm or deny coverage for their losses within a reasonable time period.” The insurer moved to have the breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing count dismissed, along with the insureds’ demands for punitive damages and attorney’s fees.
The insurer sought to dismiss the breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim “on the ground that the claim is subsumed within [the insureds’] bad faith claim set forth in the third count of the complaint.”
The District Court stated that the New Jersey Supreme Court “has recognized a cause of action for, and established the applicable standard governing, an insurance company’s bad faith refusal to pay a claim pursuant to a policy of insurance.” In a case in which the insured brought an action against its insurance carrier, claiming breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing for failing to timely pay the insured’s claim, the New Jersey Supreme Court had found that the bad faith cause of action rested upon the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which is “to be implied in every contract.” Thus, the present District Court decision found that any analysis relevant to the determination of the insureds’ claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing would be implicitly incorporated into the bad faith cause of action, and it dismissed this claim.
The District Court next addressed whether “punitive damages may be assessed against an insurance carrier for the allegedly wrongful withholding of insurance benefits.” In making this determination, the Court pointed to New Jersey case law for the proposition that punitive damage awards are prohibited in contract actions absent a special relationship between the parties. This “special relationship” exception has been narrowed to the extent that “an insurer’s task of determining whether the insurance policy provided coverage of an accident cannot be deemed to give rise to … a [fiduciary] duty on the part of the insurer.” Rather, “[t]he parties, in this respect, are merely dealing with one another as they would in a normal contractual situation. They are not acting as principal and agent.”
In the present case, the insureds failed to plead facts that would show such egregious, intolerable, or outrageous conduct that would be sufficient to support an award of punitive damages. Further, the case was a first party insurance claim, which “cannot support a finding of a fiduciary relationship sufficient to invoke the special relationship exception to the general rule prohibiting punitive damage awards in actions of this form.” Thus, there was no more than a breach of contract action, which lacked “in both aggravated circumstances and facts indicative of a fiduciary, or agent-principal, relationship between the parties,” and the Court dismissed the claim for punitive damages.
It also rejected the insureds’ claim for attorney’s fees because the matter involved a first party claim for which counsel fees may not be recovered.
Date of Decision: September 26, 2014
Torres v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., CIVIL NO. 13-CV-06051, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 184534 (D.N.J. September 26, 2014) (Sheridan, J.)