FLORIDA SUPREME COURT’S APPLICATION OF INSURANCE BAD FAITH IN THIRD-PARTY CONTEXT

shutterstock_539752999What happens when an insured receives a judgment in excess of his/her insurance policy limits when the matter could have been resolved within the insured’s policy limits?  Think of a personal injury scenario where the insured received a claim by an injured party and tenders the claim to his/her insurer.  What if that matter could get resolved within policy limits but it does not and exposes the insured to a judgment in excess of the policy limits?  This could be where insurance bad faith comes into play in the third-party liability insurance context based on the totality of  circumstances—the insurer acted in bad faith in failing to settle this third-party claim and exposed the insured to a judgment in excess of the insured’s policy limits.

 

The Florida Supreme Court in Harvey v. Geico General Insurance Company, 43 Fla.L.Weekly S375a (Fla. 2018) just entered a fairly significant ruling in the insurance bad faith context with respect to third-party claims when it reversed the Fourth District Court of Appeal with direction to reinstate a substantial bad faith jury verdict against an insurer.  This case dealt with a car accident that resulted in death.  The driver that caused the accident had policy limits of $100,000 per occurrence.  The decedent’s estate was not going to accept that amount unless it had verification in a recorded statement as to other insurance and assets the driver had, which was never timely facilitated by the driver’s insurer.  As a result, the driver was sued and received an approximate $8 Million Dollar jury verdict against him.  This prompted the bad faith lawsuit (i.e., the driver was exposed to a judgment well in excess of his policy limits) where the jury found the insurer acted in bad faith (because, among other facts, had the insurer timely facilitated a recorded statement of the driver regarding other insurance and assets, the estate likely would have accepted the policy limits since the decedent did not have other insurance or significant assets).   The Fourth District, however, reversed the jury verdict and the issue on appeal became the application of bad faith law in the third-party liability context. 

 

It is this insurance bad faith application that is important and will be quoted below:

  

We have explained that “[b]ad faith law was designed to protect insureds who have paid their premiums and who have fulfilled their contractual obligations by cooperating fully with the insurer in the resolution of claims.” Berges, 896 So. 2d at 682. Thus, “[b]ad faith jurisprudence merely holds insurers accountable for failing to fulfill their obligations, and our decision does not change this basic premise.” Id. at 683.

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Almost four decades ago, we explained the law of bad faith and the good faith duty insurers owe to their insureds in handling their claims, which still holds true today. See Boston Old Colony, 386 So. 2d at 785. We explained that “in handling the defense of claims against its insured,” the insurer “has a duty to use the same degree of care and diligence as a person of ordinary care and prudence should exercise in the management of his own business.” Id. This duty arises from the nature of the insurer’s role in handling the claim on the insured’s behalf — because the insured “has surrendered to the insurer all control over the handling of the claim, including all decisions with regard to litigation and settlement, then the insurer must assume a duty to exercise such control and make such decisions in good faith and with due regard for the interests of the insured.” Id. We explained in great detail what this duty requires of insurers:

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This good faith duty obligates the insurer to advise the insured of settlement opportunities, to advise as to the probable outcome of the litigation, to warn of the possibility of an excess judgment, and to advise the insured of any steps he might take to avoid same. The insurer must investigate the facts, give fair consideration to a settlement offer that is not unreasonable under the facts, and settle, if possible, where a reasonably prudent person, faced with the prospect of paying the total recovery, would do so. Because the duty of good faith involves diligence and care in the investigation and evaluation of the claim against the insured, negligence is relevant to the question of good faith.

Id. (citations omitted).

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We reaffirmed this duty insurers owe to their insureds in Berges, stating that the insurer “owe[s] a fiduciary duty to act in [the insured's] best interests.” 896 So. 2d at 677. Indeed, “this is what the insured expects when paying premiums.” Id. at 683.

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The obligations set forth in Boston Old Colony are not a mere checklist. An insurer is not absolved of liability simply because it advises its insured of settlement opportunities, the probable outcome of the litigation, and the possibility of an excess judgment. Rather, the critical inquiry in a bad faith is whether the insurer diligently, and with the same haste and precision as if it were in the insured’s shoes, worked on the insured’s behalf to avoid an excess judgment. “[T]he question of whether an insurer has acted in bad faith in handling claims against the insured is determined under the ‘totality of the circumstances’ standard.” Id. at 680. Further, it is for the jury to decide whether the insurer failed to “act in good faith with due regard for the interests of the insured.” Boston Old Colony, 386 So. 2d at 785. This Court will not reverse a jury’s finding of bad faith where it is supported by competent, substantial evidence, as “it is not the function of [the appellate court] to substitute its judgment for the trier of fact.” Berges, 896 So. 2d at 680.

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In a case “[w]here liability is clear, and injuries so serious that a judgment in excess of the policy limits is likely, an insurer has an affirmative duty to initiate settlement negotiations.” Powell v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 584 So. 2d 12, 14 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991). In such a case, where “[t]he financial exposure to [the insured] [i]s a ticking financial time bomb” and “[s]uit c[an] be filed at any time,” any “delay in making an offer under the circumstances of this case even where there was no assurance that the claim could be settled could be viewed by a fact finder as evidence of bad faith.” Goheagan v. Am. Vehicle Ins. Co., 107 So. 3d 433, 439 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012) (citing Boston Old Colony, 386 So. 2d at 785).

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The damages claimed by an insured in a bad faith case “must be caused by the insurer’s bad faith.” Perera v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co., 35 So. 3d 893, 902 (Fla. 2010). However, “the focus in a bad faith case is not on the actions of the claimant but rather on those of the insurer in fulfilling its obligations to the insured.” Berges, 896 So. 2d at 677.*

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In the decision below, the Fourth District stated that “where the insured’s own actions or inactions result, at least in part, in an excess judgment, the insurer cannot be liable for bad faith.” Harvey, 208 So. 3d at 816. We conclude that this statement misapplies our precedent in Berges, where we stated that “the focus in a bad faith case is not on the actions of the claimant but rather on those of the insurer in fulfilling its obligations to the insured.” Berges, 896 So. 2d at 677.

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While this Court has stated that “there must be a causal connection between the damages claimed and the insurer’s bad faith,” Perera, 35 So. 3d at 902, this Court has never held or even suggested that an insured’s actions can let the insurer off the hook when the evidence clearly establishes that the insurer acted in bad faith in handling the insured’s claim. In fact, the standard jury instructions on legal cause in a bad faith case belies the Fourth District’s conclusion that where the insured’s own actions, even “in part” cause the judgment, the insurer cannot be found liable for bad faith. Indeed, the standard legal cause instruction states:

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Bad faith conduct is a legal cause of [loss] [damage] [or] [harm] if it directly and in natural and continuous sequence produces or contributes substantially to producing such [loss] [damage] [or] [harm], so that it can reasonably be said that, but for the bad faith conduct, the [loss] [damage] [or] [harm]would not have occurred.

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Fla. Std. Jury Instr. (Civ.) 404.6(a). Nowhere in this instruction does it state that an insurer can escape liability merely because the insured’s actions could have contributed to the excess judgment.

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To take the Fourth District’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, an insurer could argue that regardless of what evidence may be presented in support of the insured’s bad faith claim against the insurer, so long as the insurer can put forth any evidence that the insured acted imperfectly during the claims process, the insurer could be absolved of bad faith. As Harvey argues, this would essentially create a contributory negligence defense for insurers in bad faith cases where concurring and intervening causes are not at issue. We decline to create such a defense that is so inconsistent with our well-established bad faith jurisprudence which places the focus on the actions on the insurer — not the insured. Berges, 896 So. 2d at 677.

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

 

 

GENERAL UNDERSTANDING OF THIRD-PARTY AND FIRST-PARTY BAD FAITH INSURANCE ACTIONS

UnknownInsurance is a large part of the construction industry.  Whether you are a contractor, subcontractor, design professional, supplier, or owner, you (should) have insurance to cover risks inherent in the industry and the particulars of a project. 

 

There are instances in a dispute involving insurance coverage that either an insured or third-party claimant will become frustrated with an insurer.  The frustration may stem from the insurer not considering or initiating settlement opportunities to resolve the dispute.  When this occurs, the insured and/or third-party claimant consider preserving rights to what is known as a bad faith action largely based on the insurer “[n]ot attempting in good faith to settle claims when, under all the circumstances, it could and should have done so, had it acted fairly and  honestly toward its insured and with due regard for her or his interests.”  See Fla. Stat. s. 624.155(1)(b)(1).

 

There are two types of bad faith actions: (1) third-party bad faith actions and (2) first-party bad faith actions.

 

 Third-Party Bad Faith Actions

 

A third-party bad faith action arises when a third-party asserts a claim against the insured and the insured is exposed to damage exceeding the coverage / policy limits of its insurance policy.  Naturally, the insured would be responsible for any judgment that exceeds the policy limits of its insurance policy.  

 

But, what if the insurer had the opportunity to settle the claim for the policy limits or under the policy limits but did not and exposed the insured to a monetary judgment exceeding the policy limits?  It is this opportunity to settle a covered claim within coverage limits but refusing to do so that triggers the bad faith action.  To this point, the Florida Supreme Court stated that “the essence of a third party bad faith cause of action is to remedy a situation in which an insured is exposed to an excess judgment because of the insurer’s failure to properly or promptly defend the claim.”  Macola v. Government Employees Ins. Co., 953 So.2d 451, 458 (Fla. 2006) (internal citations omitted).

 

On the other hand, if the insurer effectuates a resolution with the third-party that includes a release of the insured, there is no third-party bad faith action considering the insured would not be exposed to a judgment in excess of the policy limits. See Fidelity and Cas. Co. of New York v. Cope, 462 So.2d 459 (Fla. 1985).

 

A third-party can bring a third-party bad faith action directly against the insured’s insurer only if it obtains a judgment against the insured in excess of the policy limits. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Zebrowski, 706 So.2d 275 (Fla. 1997).

 

A third-party bad faith action can be based on Florida Statute s. 624.155 or the common law.  A difference is that a statutory bad faith action under s. 624.155 requires what is known as a civil remedy notice identifying the insurer’s violation to be submitted to the Florida Department of Financial Services as a condition precedent to initiating the bad faith action.  See Fla.Stat. s. 624.155(3)(a).  The insurer is given 60 days to cure the violation before the bad faith action can be initiated.

 

A common law third-party bad faith action does not require the civil remedy notice.  See Macola 953 So.2d 451 (insurer tendering policy limits to insured in response to civil remedy notice and in accordance with Florida Statute s. 624.155 which did not eliminate underlying third-party action would not eliminate a common law third-party bad faith action.) 

 

However, it is important to understand that a party (whether the insured or third party) initiating a third-party bad faith action will not be able to obtain a judgment for both the common law and statutory bad faith causes of action and will ultimately have to choose the cause of action it wants to pursue.  Fla. Stat. s. 624.155(8). The statutory third-party bad faith action is probably more commonly pursued and parties should serve the civil remedy notice before initiating the bad faith action.

 

 First-Party Bad Faith Actions

 

A first-party bad faith action is not based on a third-party action but based on the insured’s own claim against its insurer (such as with a first-party property insurance policy or for uninsured motorist coverage). This may occur when the insured submits a claim against its own insurance policy and the insurer denies the claim or otherwise refuses or delays in paying the full covered amount of the claim. Unlike the third-party bad faith action, a first-party bad faith action has nothing to do with an insurer exposing an insured to a judgment in a third-party claim in excess of the policy limits.

 

A first-party bad faith claim is a statutory action under s. 624.155 that requires the civil remedy notice as a condition precedent to initiating the bad faith action.  However, unlike a third-party bad faith action, there is no common law first-party bad faith action.   QBE Ins. Corp. v. Chalfonte Condominium Apartment Ass’n, Inc., 94 So.3d 541, 545 (Fla. 2012).

 

Before a bad faith action can be initiated in a first-party action, there needs to be a determination that there is coverage, i.e., that the insurer is liable to the insured under the insurance contract, and what the covered damages are. See Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Farm, Inc., 754 So.2d 865 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000) (first-party bad faith action was premature prior to coverage dispute); see also State Farm Florida Ins. Co. v. Seville Place Condominium Ass’n, Inc., 74 So.3d 105 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011) (first-party bad faith action was premature until both coverage and extent of insured’s loss has been adjudicated).

 

(Notably, there is no statutory bad faith action against a surety issuing a payment or performance bond in Florida.  Fla.Stat. s. 624.155(9).)

 

 

Bad faith actions are complicated actions and involve a host of issues (such as discovery-related issues, burdens of proof, and damages) that are not discussed in this article.   The point of this article is for parties to understand the difference between third-party bad faith actions and first-party bad faith actions and to ensure their rights are protected if there is an insurance coverage dispute, whether it is a dispute involving an insured’s first-party insurance policy or a third-party claim that triggers an insured’s liability policy.

 

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.