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FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘Bad Faith’

Is Georgia Game for Growing Bad Faith Liability?

Posted on: July 17th, 2018

By: Jessica Samford

As discussed in my last blog on bad faith, seeking bifurcation can be a proactive means to distinguish the issue of coverage from the issue of bad faith and appropriately manage the all too often unwieldy discovery process before it’s too late.  A recent case in Georgia is an interesting illustration of an insurer’s attempt to bifurcate issues after the discovery stage in a bad faith failure to settle claim in particular and is yet another cautionary example for insurers to carefully consider the increasing potential for extracontractual liability in Georgia.  Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87868, *3-*4 (M.D. Ga. May 25, 2018).

In that case, the trial court declined to bifurcate the issues of liability and proximate cause of damages at the trial stage as requested by Geico, which sought to have a jury determine whether or not Geico could be held liable for bad faith failure to settle before being presented with evidence of the default judgment entered against Geico’s insured of almost $3 million and causation of same.  Separation of liability and damages issues was not warranted according to the trial court because facts relating to Geico’s claim handling were relevant to both, and Geico’s concerns could be handled through proper jury instructions, special interrogatories, and the verdict form.  See also Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52761 (M.D. Ga. Mar. 29, 2018).  The trial court did, however, bifurcate the claim for punitive damages from the rest of the jury trial.

The result was a jury verdict of $2 million against Geico for failing to settle in response to a bicyclist’s demand for the $30,000 policy limit based on medical bills of almost $10,000 following a motor vehicle accident.  Previously, Geico had argued there was no coverage due to the insured’s failure to notify Geico of the subsequent lawsuit she was served.  Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 203617, *6, 2017 WL 6347174 (M.D. Ga. Dec. 12, 2017).  Notwithstanding such a flagrant breach of the policy’s notice conditions, the trial court did not see coverage as being an issue since that coverage defense did not exist at the time Geico responded to the demand by offering to settle for about half the limits instead.

These unusual circumstances are certainly noteworthy, and extracontractual damages such as these are becoming less uncommon in Georgia bad faith cases.  FMG’s Insurance Coverage and Bad Faith BlogLine has already geared up to cover the Georgia Supreme Court’s upcoming rulings after granting cert on the scope of what triggers failure to settle liability in Georgia, not to mention the proposed changes to the Restatement of the Law of Liability Insurance and their impact.  Whatever is in the cards for extracontractual liability in Georgia, the risks presented by settlement demands should be evaluated in light of these current trends.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jessica Samford at [email protected].

Georgia Supreme Court Grants Certiorari In Failure to Settle Case

Posted on: June 25th, 2018

By: Bill Buechner

The Georgia Supreme Court recently granted an insurer’s petition for certiorari in a bad faith failure to settle case to consider what constitutes an offer to settle a claim within policy limits and whether an insurer’s duty to settle arises only when the claimant presents a valid offer to settle within policy limits.  First Acceptance Ins. Co. of Georgia, Inc. v. Hughes, 2018 Ga. LEXIS 407 (June 4, 2018).

In Hughes, the insured caused an automobile accident that resulted in his death and injured others, including the claimants (a mother and her minor child, who sustained a traumatic brain injury).   The limits on the policy were $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident.   After the insurer sent a letter to the claimants’ counsel (and other injured parties) requesting a settlement conference, the claimants’ counsel sent a response letter to the insurer on June 2, 2009 stating that they were “interested in having their claims resolved within your insured’s policy limits and in attending a settlement conference[.]”  The 6/2/09 letter from the claimants’ counsel also explained that the claimants had uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage in the amounts of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident.  The 6/2/09 letter continued:

Of course, the exact amount of UM benefits available to my clients depends upon the amount paid to them from the available liability coverage.  Once that is determined, a release of your insured from all personal liability except to the extent other insurance coverage is available will be necessary in order to preserve my clients’ rights to recover under the UM coverage and any other insurance policies.  In fact, if you would rather settle within your insured’s policy limits now, you can do that by providing that release document with all the insurance information as requested in the attached, along with your insured’s available bodily injury liability insurance proceeds.

The accompanying letter from the claimants’ counsel, also dated June 2, 2009, requested various insurance information within 30 days and stated that “[a]ny settlement will be conditioned upon [the] receipt of all the requested insurance information.”

Counsel for the insurer did not consider the letter from the claimants’ counsel as an offer to settle within policy limits and thus did not respond to the letter.   On July 10, 2009 (38 days later), the claimants filed a lawsuit.  On July 13, 2009 ( 41 days later), counsel for the claimants sent a letter to the insurer stating that the 6/2/09 offer to settle within policy limits was withdrawn.  The claimants thereafter obtained a jury verdict in July 2012 awarding $5,334,220 in favor of the minor child.

An administrator for the insured’s estate filed a lawsuit against the insurer asserting that the insurer negligently or in bad faith had failed to settle the minor child’s claim within policy limits.   The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer, but the Court of Appeals reversed and concluded that there were material issues of fact as to whether the 6/2/09 letters from the claimants’ counsel offered to settle the minor child’s claims within policy limits and whether the offer included a 30-day deadline for a response.  Hughes v. First Acceptance Ins. Co. of Ga., Inc., 343 Ga.App. 693, 697, 808 S.E.2d 103 (2017).

The Georgia Supreme Court granted the insurer’s petition for certiorari and stated that it was particularly concerned with (1) whether there were material issues of fact as to whether the 6/2/09 letter from the claimants’ counsel offered to settle the minor child’s claim within the policy limits and established a 30-day deadline to accept the offer; and (2) whether the insurer’s duty to settle arises “when it knows or reasonably should know settlement within the insured’s policy limits is possible with an injured party or only when the injured party presents a valid offer to settle within the insured’s policy limits?”

The Georgia Supreme Court’s rulings on these issues likely will have a significant impact on Georgia insurers and their exposure to negligent or bad faith failure to settle claims.  Oral argument has been scheduled for September.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Bill Buechner at [email protected].

Insurance Company Adjuster May Be Liable for Bad Faith

Posted on: May 14th, 2018

By: Joyce Mocek

Recently a Washington Court of Appeals held that an insurance adjuster, employed by an insurance company, could be held personally liable for bad faith and violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act (CPA) in the context of adjustment of a claim. (Keodalah et al. v. Allstate Ins. Co., et al., No. 75731-8-I (Wash. Ct. App. Mar. 26, 2018).

In this case, an insured sought uninsured/underinsured motorist benefits under its auto policy with Allstate.  Allstate’s claim adjuster determined that the insured was 70% at fault.  The insured argued the accident was due 100% to the uninsured motorist, not him.  However, Allstate refused to change its position that its insured was 70% responsible for the accident-offering the insured only $5,000.  At the trial a jury determined the insured was not responsible for the accident, and awarded the insured $108,868.

The insured then filed a second lawsuit against the insurance adjuster and its insurer for bad faith, claims under the Insurance Fair Conduct Act and the CPA.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and the insured appealed.  The appellate court held that the adjuster was engaged in the business of insurance and acting as an Allstate representative had a duty to act in good faith, and could be sued for bad faith individually.  On the CPA issue, the Court rejected prior decisions that had held there must be a contractual relationship to be liable under the CPA.  Thus, the Court determined the insured could sue the adjuster individually for bad faith and CPA violations.

This decision may have far reaching implications as it opens the door for insureds to sue the insurance adjuster handling their claim, and/or any claims personnel, including supervisors, experts, or consultants.  Claims personnel may also be joined to defeat diversity.  There is also the potential for conflict between the claims professionals and their employer that may further complicate issues.   This case emphasizes the need to act in good faith, and engage in careful consideration of all issues involved in the claims process, and consider seeking legal counsel if any potential issues arise.

If you have any questions or would like more information please contact Joyce Mocek at [email protected].

Dealing with Discovery Dangers in Bad Faith Litigation

Posted on: October 25th, 2017

By: Jessica C. Samford

Whenever an insurer could be facing a bad faith claim, what documents may be discoverable during litigation is an important consideration. While the ultimate outcome hinges on specific circumstances of the case, the discovery rules of the applicable jurisdiction is a major factor. Regardless of which state or federal laws apply, counsel often attempt to obtain the broadest scope of documents, which could include the claims file, underwriting file, internal communications, personnel files, claims of other insureds and claims handling procedures.

Although relevancy objections, as well as work-product and attorney-client communication privileges, can be asserted, a proactive rather than reactive approach is better. This is especially true because the scope of protection provided by work-product doctrines for documents created in anticipation of litigation is typically a qualified protection that can be overcome by showing substantial need for the documents and might not protect documents from production in discovery if they were created in the ordinary course of business of claims handling. Even further, it is possible for attorney-client privileges that are asserted based on the relationship between the insured and the attorney hired by the carrier to defend the insured to be waived by the insured. That means that despite the common interest the carrier and the insured once shared in the defense against the third-party claimant, in bad faith litigation, these attorney-client communications could now be discoverable. Therefore, best practice is to keep communications with counsel about defending the insured’s liability separate from communications with counsel about coverage defenses.

One option is to seek to bifurcate or stay discovery on bad faith claims and limit discovery to whether there is coverage under the policy before evidence of bad faith is addressed. The ideal way to accomplish this would be with the consent of opposing counsel early on so that, if necessary, it can be part of a discovery order or, in federal cases, a joint proposed discovery plan for court approval. If opposing counsel does not agree, this relief can be sought by motion to the court.

However, courts may not always grant such relief without consent of all parties. In Virginia, for example, a federal district court recently declined to bifurcate or stay discovery on the bad faith portion of the lawsuit for breaches of contract plus extracontractual attorneys’ fees and costs. Federal judges have the discretion to separate issues “for convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize.” FRCP 42. Delaying discovery on bad faith has been found to meet this standard because bad faith discovery may not ultimately be necessary if it can be established that there was no policy coverage, in the first place, upon which the extra-contractual bad faith claim is based. Similarly, courts applying Georgia law typically follow this reasoning because evidence of bad faith is irrelevant absent coverage.

The court in Virginia, however, noted that the issue of bifurcation was not raised until after considerable discovery and a motion to compel, found “obvious overlap in discoverable evidence that would support” breach of contract as equally as bad faith, and commented that “it would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which there was evidence to support bad faith and not breach of contract.” Hopeman Bros. v. Cont’l Cas. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164434. Other courts may be more inclined to agree with persuasive arguments focusing on overreaching discovery requests for documents that are not claim specific, that generate costly (regarding time, effort, and expense) discovery disputes over relevancy and privileged materials, and that is generally more complex an issue, especially if coverage can be determined as a matter of law based on the policy terms and liability allegations themselves.

With advance assistance of counsel, insurance carriers can more effectively evaluate these strategies in defending bad faith claims and navigate these discovery pitfalls in particular.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jessica Samford at [email protected].