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.