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bad faith

September 22 roundup

by Ted Frank on September 22, 2009

  • Proposed Costco fuel settlement: $0 for class, $10M for attorneys. [CCAF]
  • Senator Specter’s latest attempt to curry favor with trial lawyers. [Ribstein; see also Corporate Counsel]
  • The Frank-Gryphon paper on the game theory of medical malpractice settlements is now posted. Comments welcome. [SSRN]
  • Heritage panel on tort reform in the states features Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. [Summary at Point of Law]
  • Liability waivers ignored and Texas Motor Speedway on the hook for $12 million after a 12-year-old driver strikes 11-year-old in the pit area. [Fort Worth Star-Telegram; id. on pre-trial]
  • Martha Raye turning over in her grave, as trial lawyers target denture cream as next mass tort. [AP/Washington Post]

Inside Counsel magazine’s March 2009 issue quotes me (and mentions this blog) in a story about punitive damages and a Third Circuit ruling imposing a 1-to-1 limit on punitive damages in a bad-faith-failure-to-settle case, Jurinko v. Medical Protective Co. (albeit in a mysteriously unpublished decision). (Lauren Williamson, “Court Imposes 1-to-1 Punitive Damages Ratio”, Inside Counsel, March 2009; see also Shannon P. Duffy, “3rd Circuit Slashes Punitives, Imposes 1-1 Ratio”, Legal Intelligencer, Dec. 30.) I do take issue with the line “The decision continues a trend of appeals courts beginning to rein in punitive damage awards when there is no physical injury or ‘reprehensible’ behavior.” A 1-to-1 ratio isn’t “reining in” punitive damages awards in such cases, because just a generation ago, the ratio for such situations was zero-to-one, because punitive damages were to be limited to intentional or particularly reprehensible conduct. As I feared a few months ago, the 1-to-1 ratio “ceiling” the Supreme Court suggested in Exxon Shipping v. Baker has become a benchmark.

The magazine also has a short interview with Andrew Frey, the Mayer Brown litigator who has argued several Supreme Court punitive damages cases.

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Wayne Davis, Jr., had a .203 blood-alcohol level, when he drove his pickup across the center line of a Camden County, Missouri, highway on March 24, 2000, and crashed head on into the compact car of Edward and Virginia Johnson.

You’ll be happy to hear that the Johnsons didn’t try to blame the beer company or the auto manufacturer, and simply sued Davis. Davis’s insurer, Allstate, contacted the Johnsons’ attorney, David Sexton, in April, and asked for access to the Johnsons’ medical record. Sexton responded by demanding the policy limits. Allstate requested the medical records three more times, and finally got the records on December 20. (A Dan Margolies Kansas City Star article (via Childs) incorrectly says Allstate did not respond, but the court’s opinion says otherwise.) Allstate immediately agreed to pay the settlement limits, but now Sexton refused, saying his April offer had expired, and he now wanted $3 million from Allstate. We’ll let the Missouri Court of Appeals explain what happened next:

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If you wonder why insurance fraud and insurance expense are so high in New York state it’s because of opinions like AA Acupuncture Service v. State Farm Mutual Insurance Company. (The fact that the plaintiff is a quack-upuncturist immediately suggests problems, no?) Civil Court Judge Arlene P. Bluth agreed that there was “uncontradicted, overwhelming circumstantial evidence” that an accident had been faked. But State Farm was still not entitled to summary judgment on the litigation of bad-faith claims by three medical providers who insisted that State Farm was liable as the insurer of the woman who claimed to have been injured in the accident. (Plaintiffs deny fraud, though apparently wasn’t able to rebut the evidence of fraud at the motion stage.)

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In October 2006, we reported on a $20 million jackpot justice verdict:

Ted Fields was injured in an auto accident with Jimmy Woodley; Woodley’s insurer went bankrupt, so Fields, on January 30, 1997, asked Allstate to pay $25,000 in medical bills and lost wages. Allstate sent Fields forms to fill out, and he did so three weeks later; when Allstate didn’t pay instantaneously, he sued them in March 1997 for bad faith. Fields turned the discovery process into a far-reaching investigation of all of Allstate’s claim procedures; the judge refused to constrain irrelevant deposition questioning, at which point in 1999 Allstate offered Fields the full amount of his $50,000 policy limit rather than waste hundreds of thousands in trial. Fields refused; his attorneys filed several separate motions of default rather than litigate the underlying issues after the trial court denied a summary judgment motion. An appellate court found that Allstate was entitled to summary judgment because of the lack of any evidence of bad-faith in responding to Fields’s claims; the Indiana Supreme Court overturned that ruling on a procedural technicality that the appeal was premature.

The trial court ruled that Allstate was not allowed to present evidence that it was not liable for actual or punitive damages or that it acted “with anything other than dishonest purpose, moral obliquity, furtive design, and/or ill will.” A jury, hearing this one-sided sham of a trial, awarded $20 million in damages, though one would hope the Court of Appeals, hearing a timely appeal, makes the same decision it made before. Press coverage fails to mention that Allstate wasn’t allowed to defend itself at trial; the plaintiff told the jury that the dispute caused high blood pressure, heart problems, and a stroke, though then the question becomes why he isn’t suing his attorney.

Today, the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed.

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In 1981, Curtis Campbell (Campbell) was driving with his wife, Inez Preece Campbell, in Cache County, Utah. He decided to pass six vans traveling ahead of them on a two-lane highway. Todd Ospital was driving a small car approaching from the opposite direction. To avoid a head-on collision with Campbell, who by then was driving on the wrong side of the highway and toward oncoming traffic, Ospital swerved onto the shoulder, lost control of his automobile, and collided with a vehicle driven by Robert G. Slusher. Ospital was killed, and Slusher was rendered permanently disabled. The Campbells escaped unscathed.

Guess quickly: which plaintiff in the resulting twenty years of litigation won the biggest jury verdict?

How many of you say Ospital?

How many of you say Slusher?

You’re both wrong. The plaintiff with the biggest jury verdict was Curtis Campbell, whom a jury awarded an incredible $147.6 million.

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Ted Fields was injured in an auto accident with Jimmy Woodley; Woodley’s insurer went bankrupt, so Fields, on January 30, 1997, asked Allstate to pay $25,000 in medical bills and lost wages. Allstate sent Fields forms to fill out, and he did so three weeks later; when Allstate didn’t pay instantaneously, he sued them in March 1997 for bad faith. Fields turned the discovery process into a far-reaching investigation of all of Allstate’s claim procedures; the judge refused to constrain irrelevant deposition questioning, at which point in 1999 Allstate offered Fields the full amount of his $50,000 policy limit rather than waste hundreds of thousands in trial. Fields refused; his attorneys filed several separate motions of default rather than litigate the underlying issues after the trial court denied a summary judgment motion. An appellate court found that Allstate was entitled to summary judgment because of the lack of any evidence of bad-faith in responding to Fields’s claims; the Indiana Supreme Court overturned that ruling on a procedural technicality that the appeal was premature.

The trial court ruled that Allstate was not allowed to present evidence that it was not liable for actual or punitive damages or that it acted “with anything other than dishonest purpose, moral obliquity, furtive design, and/or ill will.” A jury, hearing this one-sided sham of a trial, awarded $20 million in damages, though one would hope the Court of Appeals, hearing a timely appeal, makes the same decision it made before. Press coverage fails to mention that Allstate wasn’t allowed to defend itself at trial; the plaintiff told the jury that the dispute caused high blood pressure, heart problems, and a stroke, though then the question becomes why he isn’t suing his attorney. (Ken Kosky, “Valpo man wins $20 million verdict v. Allstate”, Northwest Indiana Times, Oct. 6).

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Or, “Not only loose lips sink ships.”

Bloggers Grace and Wallace point us to the tale of the infamous (and now suspended) attorney Rex DeGeorge, which has important lessons how the plaintiffs’ bar has made insurance more expensive for all of us: because insurers who suspect fraud risk substantial liability for “bad faith” denial of coverage (e.g., May 5, where an insurer who merely investigated an $8,000 chiropractor’s bill was hit with a $150,000 judgment), insurance scamsters can manipulate the system by threatening a suit. For an individual case, simply defending the non-payment may be more expensive than making the payment; even on a systematic basis, the risk of losing a case and facing punitive damages can put insurers in a bind. This is lengthy, but worth it.

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