The Washington State Supreme Court Rules that Claims Adjusters May Not Be Held Personally Liable for Insurance Bad Faith
In 2018, the Washington Court of Appeals, Division 1, issued a ruling which rippled through the insurance community by finding that a claims adjuster may be held personally liable for the tort of insurance bad faith. However, in October 2019, the Washington State Supreme Court held that a claims adjuster may not be personally sued for insurance bad faith or for alleged violations of Washington’s Consumer Protection Act, RCW 19.86 et seq. (“CPA”). Keodalah v. Allstate Ins. Co., Slip. Op. No. 95867-0, 2019 WL 4877438 (Wash. Oct. 3, 2019).
In Keodalah v. Allstate Ins. Co., the Supreme Court ruled there is no statutory basis for a bad faith claim against an adjuster under RCW 48.01.030 because this statute does not create an implied cause of action. The Supreme Court also re-affirmed that a bad faith claim premised upon the common law may not be pursued against an adjuster, since an adjuster is outside the quasi-fiduciary relationship between the insurer and its insured. Further, the Supreme Court held that a CPA claim may not proceed against a claims adjuster as a matter of law, regardless of whether it is premised upon a per se regulatory violation or upon alleged bad faith.
In Keodalah, an insured brought suit against their insurer and its claims adjuster for the tort of insurance bad faith and the alleged violation of the CPA in connection with the insured’s claim for underinsured motorist (“UIM”) benefits. The insured alleged that the adjuster had improperly undervalued the UIM claim by relying on incorrect information regarding the subject auto accident. Id. In part, the insured premised his bad faith claim against the adjuster on RCW 48.01.030, which broadly provides “that all persons be actuated by good faith . . . in all insurance matters.” The Supreme Court thus evaluated whether RCW 48.01.030 created an implied cause of action for bad faith against a claims adjuster.
After analyzing the issue under the 3-prong “Bennett test”, the Supreme Court held that “RCW 48.01.030 does not create an implied cause of action for insurance bad faith.” This is because RCW 48.01.030 benefits the general public interest, rather than a specific, identifiable class of persons. RCW 48.01.030 also does not contain a specific enforcement mechanism which, the Supreme Court found, “suggests that the legislature did not intend to imply a cause of action based on violations of RCW 48.01.030.” Moreover, the Supreme Court reasoned that “[i]f we were to read the statute to imply a cause of action, by the statute’s plain language, such implied cause of action would apply against insureds as well. That is, insurers would be empowered to sue their insured … [which] would not be consistent with the legislature’s purpose in enacting the statute[.]” Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that a bad faith claim may not be pursued against a claims adjuster based upon a statutory violation of RCW 48.01.030.
Notably, the Keodalah decision also re-affirmed the Supreme Court’s prior rulings that a bad faith claim premised upon the common law may not be brought against anyone other than an insurer. In citing its ruling in Tank v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 105 Wn.2d 381, 715 P.2d 1333 (1986), the Supreme Court in Keodalah stated that “this court has limited bad-faith tort claims to the context of the insurer-insured relationship[.]” This is because such claims are premised upon “the fiduciary relationship existing between the insurer and insured.” Keodalah, at *15 – 16, n. 6 (quoting Tank, 105 Wn.2d at 385). The Supreme Court found that no such fiduciary relationship exists with respect to a claims adjuster, and that limiting common law bad faith claims to actions against an insurer was consistent with a long line of Washington precedent. See, e.g., St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v Onvia, Inc., 165 Wn.2d 122, 130 n.3, 196 P.3d 664 (2008).
Finally, the Supreme Court held that a CPA claim may not be pursued against a claims adjuster, regardless of whether the claim is premised upon alleged bad faith or upon a per se violation of Washington’s regulation concerning unfair claims settlement practices, WAC 284-30-330. By its terms, WAC 284-30-330 only applies to “unfair or deceptive acts or practices of the insurer.” Keodalah, at *14 (citing WAC 284-30-330) (emphasis original). Moreover, because “RCW 48.01.030 does not itself provide an actionable duty” for bad faith, it cannot form the basis for CPA liability against an adjuster. The Supreme Court explained that it has “limited CPA claims based on breach of the statutory duty of good faith” to the insurer because it is the insurer – not the adjuster – who owes a quasi-fiduciary duty to the insured. As a result, the Supreme Court held that “[b]ecause Keodalah claims a breach of the duty of good faith by someone outside the quasi-fiduciary relationship, his CPA claim based on RCW 48.01.030 was properly dismissed.”