On February 2, 2016, the Washington Supreme Court provided some much needed guidance on what actions by an insurer will support a claim under Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act (“the IFCA”). Perez-Crisantos v. State Farm Casualty Co., ___ P.3d ___ (No. 92267-5, Feb. 2, 2017). Although the IFCA was enacted in 2007 and is generally focused on preventing unreasonable conduct by insurers, the federal district courts in Washington have disagreed on what a plaintiff must show to maintain a cause of action. See Langley v. GEICO Gen. Ins. Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26079 (E.D. Wash. Feb. 24, 2015); Cardenas, et al. v. Navigators Ins. Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 145194 (W.D. Wash. 2011).  The Washington Supreme Court has not spoken on the issue until now.

Unlike a Washington common law bad faith action, the IFCA allows attorney fees and treble damages for a violation, one of the few instances in Washington where punitive damages are permitted. Unfortunately the language of the primary statute of the IFCA, RCW 48.30.015, is less than clear and has been kindly referred to as “vexing” by a judge in the Eastern District of Washington. Workland & Witherspoon v. Evanston Ins. Co., 141 F. Supp. 3d 1148, 1155 (E.D. Wash 2015).

The dispute centers on whether a violation of certain state insurance regulations, such as where an insurer does not respond to certain communications within 10 days, is enough to support an IFCA cause of action, or whether an insurer must unreasonably deny a claim for coverage or payment of benefits for an IFCA cause of action to exist. In a somewhat rare victory for insurers in the Washington appellate courts, the Washington Supreme Court sided with the insurer and held that there must actually be an actual denial of coverage for the insured to move forward with an IFCA lawsuit.

The case involved an underinsured motorist claim where State Farm paid PIP benefits but balked at paying the additional amounts the plaintiff demanded; an arbitrator subsequently ruled in favor of the plaintiff. The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s IFCA lawsuit on summary judgment and the Washington Supreme Court accepted direct review.

In ruling in State Farm’s favor, the court held that RCW 48.30.015 is ambiguous and therefore turned to its legislative history, including the ballot title that was put before Washington’s voters in 2007. The court concluded that the IFCA was meant to apply to denials of coverage as opposed to violations of the insurance regulations. In doing so it rejected the position of the Washington Pattern Jury Instruction committee, which had developed a jury instruction that contemplated the situation where the IFCA cause of action was based only upon a violation of the insurance regulations.

After Perez-Crisantos, it is now clear that violations of the Washington insurance regulations are relevant to an insured’s claimed damages under the IFCA, but such alleged violations by themselves are insufficient to pursue an IFCA cause of action. For such a cause of action to exist, the insured must show an actual denial of coverage.

Oregon Courts Protect Insurers from Attorney’s Fee Awards in Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Claims in Trio of Recent Cases

The issue of attorney’s fees in cases involving uninsured/underinsured motorist (“UM” or “UIM”) benefits has been a hot topic in Oregon recently, with the Oregon Court of Appeals issuing a decision on this issue once a month for first three months in 2016. In Oregon, an insurer is entitled to a so-called “safe harbor” from the obligation to pay attorney’s fees in UIM cases if “the only issues are the liability of the uninsured or underinsured motorist and the damages due the insured.” ORS 742.061(3). However, if an insurer raises any issues beyond the scope of ORS 742.061(3), the insured is entitled to attorney’s fees.

In January of 2016, the Oregon Court of Appeals addressed what is meant by the phrase “damages due the insured” in ORS 742.061(3). In Spearman v. Progressive Classic Ins. Co., 276 Or. App. 114 (2016), the insured was involved in an accident with an uninsured motorist and sought recovery from his UIM insurer for only “unreimbursed accident-related medical expenses,” i.e. only those expenses for which the insured had not already been reimbursed under other coverage. In its Answer to the Complaint, the insurer admitted that the insured sustained “some” injury in the collision but disputed the “nature and extent” of the insured’s alleged injuries and disputed the “reasonableness and necessity” of some of the insured’s accident-related medical expenses.

The insured argued that he was entitled to attorney’s fees because the phrase “damages due to the insured” meant “the amount of the benefits due the insured,” and a dispute suggesting that the insurer owes no benefit, or that the insured had no unreimbursed accident-related medical expenses, exceeded the scope of the safe harbor in ORS 742.061(3). In other words, the insurer’s challenge to the “reasonableness and necessity” of medical expenses, and the resulting argument that the insured was otherwise fully compensated for his injuries, would allow the fact finder to determine that the insured was not entitled to any award in the UIM action, thereby raising an issue beyond those permitted by ORS 742.061(3).

However, after examining the purpose of UM/UIM benefits and the statutory context of ORS 742.061, the Court of Appeals rejected the insured’s contention and held that the phrase “damages due the insured” refers to what the insured could recover from the uninsured motorist, not from the insurer. Consequently, even though the insurer’s pleadings put at issue the possibility that plaintiff would recover no benefit in the UIM action, such allegations raised issues only as to the damages that the insured would be entitled to recover from the uninsured motorist, as permitted by ORS 742.061(3). As a result, the insured was not entitled to attorney’s fees.

Then, in February of 2016, the Oregon Court of Appeals again held that where an insurer challenged the existence of an insured’s alleged injuries caused by an underinsured motorist, the safe harbor provision applied. Kelley v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co., 276 Or. App. 553 (2016). The court noted that in Spearman, it had concluded “that the issues that are within the scope of ORS 742.061(3) are the issues of liability and damages that an insured would have to establish in an action against the uninsured or underinsured motorist.” Therefore, the insurer’s denial that the insured injured his shoulder in the collision raised only an issue “of liability and damages that an insured would have to establish in an action against the uninsured or underinsured motorist.” The Court concluded that the insured was within the safe harbor scope of ORS 742.061(3) and the insured was not entitled to attorney’s fees.

Finally, in March of 2016, the Oregon Court of Appeals issued yet another decision favorable to insurers on the safe harbor provision. Robinson v. Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation Dist. of Oregon, 277 Or. App. 60 (2016). In Robinson, the plaintiff suffered injuries as passenger in a Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District (“Tri-Met”) vehicle when it stopped suddenly to avoid a collision with a “phantom vehicle.” In her subsequent lawsuit, the plaintiff argued that she was entitled to attorney’s fees from Tri-Met, a self-insurer, because Tri-Met asserted affirmative defenses that went beyond the scope of ORS 742.061(3). Specifically, Tri-Met allegedly went beyond the safe harbor provision by (1) asserting the possibility of the insured recovering nothing based on offset; (2) alleging the collateral source offset issue; and (3) alleging the insured had failed to state a claim for Tri-Met’s negligence.

The Court of Appeals rejected the first argument based on Spearman, holding that “[i]n the determination of damages, a zero recovery can be a permissible outcome in a UM/UIM claim as a simple matter of fact or evidence, and, as such, it is a permissible outcome within the bounds of the fee exemption in ORS 742.061(3).”

With respect to the second issue, plaintiff argued that Tri-Met’s allegation of collateral source offset automatically disqualified Tri-Met from the fee exemption. However, the affirmative defense was pled as a matter of course, as a contingency, and there was no actual dispute about the existence, enforceability, or applicability of an offset. By looking to the dictionary definition of the term “issue,” the court noted that “[b]ecause the word is used here in the adversarial context of arbitration or litigation, an ‘issue’ is a matter of live controversy, active contest, or actual dispute.” The Court of Appeals concluded that “an insurer’s boilerplate reference to such a matter is a nonissue.” Because nothing in the record showed that the collateral source allegation was actually developed, disputed, or decided, Tri-Met’s reference to a “nonissue” did not disqualify it from the fee exemption.

The Court of Appeals dispensed with the insured’s third argument by stating that UIM claims turn on the fault of the uninsured driver, not Tri-Met. As a result, any response by Tri-Met regarding the negligence of its driver was a “non sequitur” in a UIM claim.

The Court of Appeals attempted to reconcile the Robinson decision with its prior decision in Kiryuta v. Country Preferred Insurance Co., 273 Or. App. 469 (2015), where the court ruled that the affirmative defenses of “Offset” and “Contractual Compliance” destroyed the insurer’s safe harbor protection. The court explained that in Kiryuta, the insurer accepted coverage in the safe harbor letter but then reserved the prospect to deny coverage by asserting that UIM benefits “are subject to all terms and conditions of the policy of insurance.” The Robinson court observed that the Kiryuta decision “did not consider the question here involving an insurer’s reference to a particular provision, one which did not develop into an actual dispute and especially one that was potentially necessary to calculate sums ultimately payable, such as a policy limit or an offset against damages.” The court so held, despite the fact that the insurer argued that the affirmative defenses were not in dispute, i.e. the affirmative defenses were not intended to assert that some term in the policy prevented plaintiff from recovering any damages and only the damages due to the insured was raised and litigated in the arbitration.

The Kiryuta decision has been accepted for review by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Oregon’s Safe-Harbor Provision in the Insurance Fee-Shifting Statute Not as Safe as it Seems

The Oregon insurance fee-shifting statute, ORS 742.061, continues to be a popular topic in the Oregon courts. Our last entry on this subject discussed whether the statute’s reference to “any court of this state” included federal court actions. More recently, the Oregon Court of Appeals strictly construed the safe-harbor provision of ORS 742.061 in holding that an insured could recover attorney’s fees in a UIM arbitration because the insurer had pled – although it did not pursue – other policy-based defenses. Kiryuta v. Country Preferred Insurance Company, 273 Or. App. 469 (2015)

Subsection (3) of the statute states that an insured is not entitled to attorney’s fees under subsection (1) in actions to recover uninsured or underinsured motorist benefits “if, in writing, not later than six months from the date proof of loss is filed with the insurer:

(a) The insurer has accepted coverage and the only issues are the liability of the uninsured or underinsured motorist and the damages due the insured; and

(b) The insurer has consented to submit the case to binding arbitration.”

A letter issued by an insurance company under ORS 742.061(3) is referred to as a “safe-harbor” letter. In Kiryuta, the Court of Appeals addressed whether a safe-harbor letter is effective when an insurance company’s responsive pleading sets forth affirmative defenses that are not litigated but raise issues other than the liability of the uninsured or underinsured driver and the damages to which the insured is entitled. After an injured motorist made a claim for underinsured motorist benefits to Country Preferred, the insurer denied the claim and issued a safe-harbor letter that complied with the requirements of ORS 742.061(3). The insured filed a civil action and the matter was arbitrated. Despite the safe-harbor letter, the arbitrator awarded attorney’s fees to the insured. On review, the trial court reversed the award of attorney’s fees based on the safe-harbor letter.

In its subsequent appeal, the insured argued that Country Preferred’s affirmative defenses of “Contractual Compliance” and “Offset” raised issues other than liability of the driver and the damages due to him, rendering the safe harbor-letter ineffective. Country Preferred argued that because it only litigated the issue of damages owed in the arbitration, the safe-harbor letter was effective. The Court of Appeals agreed with the insured.

In Oregon, a party’s pleadings “declare and control the issues to be determined and the relations that the parties bear to each other.” The Court of Appeals noted that because Country Preferred’s pleading provided a foundation to litigate issues other than the amount of plaintiff’s damages or liability of the underinsured driver, Country Preferred’s litigation strategy was potentially broader than that contemplated by the legislature in ORS 742.061(3). Consequently, the insured had to be prepared at the arbitration to meet any proof that Country Preferred might offer consistent with its pleadings. Therefore, Country Preferred’s conduct was inconsistent with the safe-harbor provision; it was immaterial that Country Preferred did not follow through with its potential litigation strategy. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and held that the insured is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees under ORS 742.061.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals noted that Country Preferred was in control of its pleading and could have conformed its pleading to the limitations the safe-harbor provision. However, in a footnote, the Court of Appeals sent mixed messages by hinting that insurer could retain the protection of the safe-harbor provision by timely amending its pleading to conform to the requirements of ORS 742.061(3). Accordingly, in uninsured or underinsured claims involving safe-harbor letters in Oregon, insurance companies should consider amending responsive pleadings to reflect only those affirmative defenses that pertain to the liability of the uninsured or underinsured driver and the damages to which the insured is entitled.

Third Circuit Holds That Punitive Damages Award Against the Insured is Not Recoverable in Subsequent Bad Faith Action

In Wolfe v. Allstate Prop. & Casualty Ins. Co., Civil Action No. 12-4450, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 9876, (3d Cir. June 12, 2015), the Third Circuit, interpreting Pennsylvania law, held that punitive damages awarded against an insured in a personal injury suit may not be recovered in a later breach of contract or bad faith suit against the insurer. We covered the Wolfe case back in December when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the insured could assign statutory bad faith claims to the underlying plaintiff.

In the underlying suit, Allstate’s insured rear-ended the plaintiff while under the influence of alcohol. The insured’s policy provided liability coverage up to $50,000, and required Allstate to defend suits by third parties arising out of automobile accidents, but provided that Allstate “would ‘not defend an insured person sued for damages which are not covered by this policy.’” Id. at *2. Plaintiff made an initial settlement demand to Allstate of $25,000, based on medical records provided to Allstate’s adjuster. Allstate provided Plaintiff with a counteroffer of $1,200, which plaintiff rejected. After the plaintiff filed suit, Allstate warned the insured that if the damages at trial exceeded his $50,000 policy limit, the insured would be personally responsible for the excess portion of the award. During the course of the litigation, Plaintiff learned of the insured’s intoxication and amended his complaint to include a claim for punitive damages. Allstate informed the insured about the potential for punitive damages, and reminded him “that those damages were not covered under his policy,” and that “Allstate would not pay that portion of [any] verdict, and he would be held responsible for it.” Id. at *3. Throughout the course of litigation, neither party moved from its initial offer or demand, and the case advanced to trial. At trial, the jury awarded Plaintiff $15,000 in compensatory damages, and $50,000 in punitive damages. Allstate paid the compensatory damage award, but not the punitive damage award. In return for plaintiff’s agreement not to enforce the punitive damages judgment against him personally, the insured assigned his rights against Allstate to plaintiff.

Prior to trial in the subsequent bad faith action, Allstate filed a motion in limine seeking to bar evidence of the punitive damages award in the underlying trial as damages in the bad faith suit, as Pennsylvania law prohibits an insurer from paying a punitive damages award. The District Court denied the motion, but the Third Circuit reversed, predicting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would conclude “in an action by an insured against his insurer for bad faith, the insured may not collect as compensatory damages the punitive damages awarded against it in the underlying lawsuit.” Id. at *10. Thus, the District Court erred in denying Allstate’s motion in limine to preclude such evidence from being presented to the jury. Furthermore, based on this finding, the Third Circuit held “an insurer has no duty to consider the potential for the jury to return a verdict for punitive damages when it is negotiating a settlement of the case.” Id. at *21. Imposing such a duty, the Third Court held, would be tantamount to making the insurer responsible for punitive damages, which are not insurable under Pennsylvania public policy. Based on these holdings, the Third Circuit granted Allstate a new trial on the bad faith claims, where plaintiff was barred from presenting evidence relating to the $50,000 in punitive damages, but was allowed to seek compensatory damages based on any injuries other than the punitive damages award.

Allstate also filed a motion for summary judgment on the breach of contract and bad faith claims prior to trial. Allstate argued that once the punitive damages award was removed from the plaintiff’s damages claim, the case should be dismissed because the underlying compensatory damage award was within policy limits and therefore the insured suffered no harm. The District Court denied the motion in its entirety. The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial, first noting that an insurer “can still be liable for nominal damages for violating its contractual duty of good faith by failing to settle.” Id. at *25. Secondly, the Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s denial of summary judgment on the statutory bad faith claim, as the statute makes no requirement that the plaintiff be entitled to damages for the insurer’s bad faith to bring such a claim. This holding reflects the policy behind the statute, which is intended to deter insurance companies from engaging in bad faith practices, not compensate injured insureds. Thus, an insured “does not need compensatory damages to succeed on his statutory bad faith claim, which only permits recovery of punitive damages, interest, and costs.” Id. at *28.

The Wolfe decision is particularly notable for its holding that (1) an insured cannot recover an underlying punitive damages award in a subsequent bad faith claim, and (2) an insurer is not necessarily obligated to consider the potential for punitive damages exposure in the underlying case when evaluating a claim for settlement. It remains to be seen whether a Pennsylvania state court would agree with the Third Circuit’s determination. In addition, Wolfe may have limited application going forward depending on the facts and circumstances of future cases.

Ninth Circuit Holds That “Use” of Motor Vehicle Includes Unloading Injured Passenger

In California, motor vehicle policies confer insured status on any person while “using” a motor vehicle with the permission of the owner.  The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed whether unloading an injured passenger from a motor vehicle constituted “use” of that motor vehicle under California law.  In holding that unloading an injured passenger from a motor vehicle constituted “use,” the court reasoned that the subject policy incorporated California Insurance Code § 11580.06(g), which defines “use” to include “unloading” a motor vehicle.

In Encompass Insurance Co. v. Coast National Insurance Co., decided Aug. 13, 2014, Encompass sought contribution from Coast National Insurance Co. and Mid-Continent Insurance Co. in connection with a settlement it paid on behalf of its insured, Lisa Torti, arising from the personal injury claim of Alexandra Van Horn.  Van Horn was a passenger in a vehicle operated by Anthony Glen Watson.  Watson lost control of his vehicle and struck a light pole.  Torti was the passenger in a vehicle passing by when she stopped to render aid.  Fearing that the Watson vehicle would catch fire, Torti removed Van Horn.  Van Horn claimed that Torti caused her severe spinal injuries.

Encompass issued a package policy to Torti providing, among other things, motor vehicle and personal excess liability coverage.  Mid-Continent issued a motor vehicle policy to Torti and Coast issued a motor vehicle policy to Watson (the driver of the vehicle in which Van Horn was a passenger).  The Mid-Continent and Coast policies provided coverage for the “use” of the vehicle if such use was with the permission of the owner.  The court addressed the meaning of the term “use,” but did not evaluate the issue of “permission.”

The court recognized that the Mid-Continent and Coast policies incorporated the definition of “use” from California Insurance Code § 11580.06(g), which unambiguously equates “unloading” of a motor vehicle with the “use” of a motor vehicle.  Hence, the court held that “use” included Torti’s unloading of Van Horn from the Watson vehicle.

The court rejected the dissent’s arguments that unloading of a vehicle constitutes use only when it is part of the user’s act of availing himself or herself of the vehicle because there was an absence of case law adopting such a theory.  The court also stated that the dissent’s attempt to create a distinction between commercial and noncommercial vehicles was unavailing in light of the fact that the statutory definition of “motor vehicle” included “any vehicle designed for use principally upon the streets and highways and subject to the motor vehicle registration under the law of this state.”  Moreover, the court noted that there were at least two cases where California courts held that unloading noncommercial vehicles constituted use of those vehicles.

The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that unloading only constitutes use when it is integral to the function of the vehicle as a means of transport such that the person unloading the vehicle gains a benefit.  In the case upon which the defendants relied, Travelers Ins. Co. v. Northwestern Mut. Ins. Co. (1972) 104 Cal. Rptr. 283, the California Court of Appeal held that performing maintenance on a vehicle without more was not necessarily use of the motor vehicle.  The Ninth Circuit stated that Travelers did not limit the circumstances under which maintaining a vehicle constitutes use, and therefore imposed no limits on “unloading.”  Travelers also was decided 12 years prior to the enactment of § 11580.06(g) and to the extent that Travelers was inconsistent, the court was bound to follow the Insurance Code.

The court remanded the decision for further proceedings.  Notably, the court never determined whether Torti had Watson’s permission to use his motor vehicle.  With the issue of whether unloading constitutes use resolved, the ultimate coverage determination will likely turn on the issue of permission.

Auto Policy Not Considered As Providing Excess Coverage Over Another Auto Policy Where “Other Insurance” Clauses Conflict

A California appellate court recently held that absent inclusion of exclusionary language authorized by California’s underinsured motorist statute, an auto liability insurer could not rely on its “other insurance” clause to support the position its policy provided excess coverage.

INS BLOG_carAccording to the Aug. 12 opinion in Progressive Choice Insurance Co. v. California State Automobile Association Inter-Insurance Bureau, Benjamin White was injured in a traffic collision while riding as a passenger in a vehicle operated by Scott Tortora. The third party who caused the collision was underinsured. White was insured under two automobile insurance policies.

The first policy was issued by Progressive to Tortora and covered Tortora’s vehicle. The Progressive policy provided underinsured motorist (UIM) bodily injury coverage with limits of $100,000 per person. The second policy was issued by the California State Automobile Association (CSAA) to White as the named insured. The CSAA policy provided UIM bodily injury coverage with limits of $50,000 per person.

White settled with the at-fault driver’s auto insurer for the limit under that policy of $25,000. White then made a claim for UIM benefits under the Progressive and CSAA policies. CSAA denied coverage. Progressive paid the sum of $62,500 to White. Progressive then demanded that CSAA reimburse Progressive $20,833.33, the pro-rata share of the payment made to White. CSAA denied any obligation to reimburse Progressive.

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