|This article of mine appeared in last week's November 10, 2015 edition of the Pennsylvania Law Weekly and is republished here with permission.|
Ending Post-'Koken' Wars of Attrition
Discovery issues continue to burden the trial courts in post-Koken auto accident lawsuits where uninsured and underinsured motorist breach of contract claims are combined with bad-faith claims. Despite the high burden of proof attendant with showing bad faith, plaintiffs often include such claims as a "hammer" in an effort to pressure on the UM/UIM carrier to settle the underlying claims, only to then drop the bad-faith claim when the UM/UIM claim is settled. Defendant insurance companies typically strike back by hiring additional big-city defense counsel to fight bad-faith discovery efforts at all costs.
In such cases, the courts are often presented with a motion filed by the defendant insurance company seeking to sever the UM/UIM claims and bad-faith claims into two separate matters. These defense motions are typically combined with a request for a stay of any and all discovery on the bad-faith claims until a settlement or verdict on the separate UM/UIM claim is reached.
Until recently, the trend in the trial courts was to follow a procedural framework advocated by Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick by severing the UM/UIM claims from the bad-faith claims for purposes of the later trial of the matter, but still allowing discovery to proceed on all claims, even the bad-faith claim, in the meantime. These courts have indicated that any discovery issues, if they happen to arise, could always be addressed by way of discovery motions.
As these cases thereafter proceeded beyond the pleadings stage, the norm has become that these post-Koken matters being bogged down in bad-faith discovery disputes so hotly contested that they have been described by Monroe County Court of Common Pleas Judge David J. Williamson as amounting to a "war of attrition."
In two recent decisions, Williamson has bucked the trend and ruled, in the interest of judicial economy, that bad-faith discovery should instead be precluded until the conclusion of the companion UM/UIM claim so as to allow these types of cases to proceed more efficiently. The practical effect of these rulings is that the bad-faith discovery war of attrition is delayed, if not prevented altogether.
Wettick's WayIn the initial trend of bad-faith discovery decisions in post-Koken matters, a number of trial courts simply followed the guidance offered on this issue by Wettick in the seminal case of Gunn v. Automobile Insurance Co. of Hartford, PICS Case No. 08-1266 (C.P. Allegheny July 25, 2008).
In Gunn, the court ruled that since the trial of the UM claim would be by jury and the trial of the bad-faith claim would be by a bench trial under Pennsylvania state law, there is a severance of the claims for trial purposes by operation of law. However, Wettick went on to refuse the request to stay bad-faith discovery, suggesting that issues and objections raised in that regard could be addressed by way of discovery motions.
In Gunn, and again in Wutz v. Smith and State Farm, No. GD07-021766 (Alleg. Co. Sept. 9, 2009, Wettick, J.), Wettick addressed such discovery motions and noted that bad-faith discovery of the defendant UM/UIM carrier's settlement evaluation information would not be permitted during the pendency of the UIM claim. The court accepted the argument that to rule otherwise would be akin to requiring the defense in a football game to furnish its defensive formation for the upcoming play to the plaintiff before the plaintiff selected the play that it would call. Accordingly, the end result was that the most important information for the bad-faith claim could not be accessed by a plaintiff during the pendency of the UM or UIM claim. Rather, only limited, piecemeal discovery would be allowed while the UM/UIM claim is pending.
Wettick's framework is set up such that, once the jury came back with its verdict on the UM or UIM claim, the defendant insurance company would then be required to immediately dump all of its now discoverable bad-faith information and documentation from its UM/UIM file upon the plaintiff's attorney. The Gunn/Wutz framework also requires that the bad-faith trial would then begin immediately with the same judge presiding. Wettick did suggest that, if the plaintiff's counsel required a continuance to review the newly produced discovery, then the court should consider delaying the start of the bad-faith trial.
While clean and straightforward in theory, the procedural framework set up in the Gunn and Wutz cases for combined UM/UIM and bad-faith cases is impractical and almost impossible to follow in reality.
Although excellent litigators, rare will be the plaintiffs attorney ready to digest and analyze reams of records produced by the carrier on the bad-faith claim and then immediately dive headlong into another trial on the complexities of the bad-faith claim after an exhausting trial on the UM/UIM personal injury claim.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Gunn/Wutz framework of a bad-faith trial commencing immediately upon the verdict of the UIM claim does not allow for the plaintiff's completion of full depositions of the defendant insurance company's claims representatives and managers relative to bad-faith issues prior to the start of an immediate bad-faith trial. The parties may also need an opportunity and time to submit the discoverable materials to expert witnesses relative to the bad-faith claim.
Moreover, it is highly unlikely in any event that a defendant carrier would simply turn over the requested bad-faith discovery without another fight or motion for a protective order. Similarly, once a plaintiff's attorney secures some initial information from the carrier on the bad-faith claim, additional requests for more discovery or motions to compel additional bad-faith discovery would most likely be required.
Overall, there remains an ongoing split among the trial courts on whether or not to stay bad-faith discovery during the pendency of the UM/UIM claims. As it becomes more apparent that allowing bad-faith discovery to proceed during the UM/UIM claim results in real discovery wars of attrition that unnecessarily overburden both the courts and the litigants and drastically slow the movement of such matters through the court system, there may be a shift in thinking developing among trial court judges on this issue.
Williamson's WayThat shift in thinking was recently evidenced by Williamson reconsidering his own rulings on this regard in a post-Koken case that came before him.
In his initial March 18 decision in the case of Hakim v. Erie Insurance Exchange, No. 6241-Civil-2013 (C.P. Monroe Co. March 18, 2015), Williamson followed the trending Gunn/Wutz procedural framework by severing the UIM and bad-faith claims but denying a request for a stay of bad-faith discovery.
In his more recent May 8 decision in the same Hakim case, Williamson noted that bad-faith discovery disputes had arisen in the matter and found that such disputes often rose to a "war of attrition" that only served to burden already overburdened court systems.
Williamson then took a step back, looked at the big picture, and stated, "We have reexamined our opinion concerning the denial of the stay requested by the defendant of the bad-faith claim, while the breach of contract claim is pending. Upon further reflection, we determine that a stay of the bad-faith claim should be entered until such time as the breach of contract action is concluded."
Williamson supported his reversal of his prior decision by noting that evidence of the handling of claims, while relevant in the bad-faith claim, was not relevant to the merit of the actual injury claim and that the release of the claims information would be prejudicial. The court also noted that this is particularly so where it was certainly possible that the bad-faith claims would never even come to fruition pending the results of the UIM claim—if the bad-faith claim was dropped after a settlement or verdict was reached on the UIM claim. The court also reasoned that the release of the carrier's thoughts and analysis prior to the UIM claim being fully litigated could be improperly utilized by plaintiffs as a bargaining chip in settlement negotiation.
Returning to the notion of the "war of attrition," the court additionally noted that allowing bad-faith discovery to proceed during the pendency of UM/UIM claims would likely lead to more discovery requests, more motions to compel, more motions for protective orders, and more court hearings, all of which would serve to unnecessarily delay the resolution or trial of the UM/UIM claims. This, the court found, would not only be a burden on the court's resources, but would also serve to prejudice each litigant and delay the resolution of the matter.
Accordingly, Williamson entered an order vacating his prior decision in Hakim and staying all discovery in the bad-faith claim pending the resolution of the UIM claim.
Williamson would go on to rule in the same fashion in his more recent Oct. 1 decision in Brands v. Erie Insurance Exchange, No. 2604-CIVIL-2015 (C.P. Monroe Oct. 1, 2015). In Brands, Williamson severed a bad-faith claim from a UIM claim, but this time issued a stay order against any bad-faith discovery pending the resolution of the UIM claim. In so ruling, Williamson reiterated the same detailed rationale set forth in the Hakim decision as support for the stay of bad-faith discovery.
In Brands, the court also went on to address a plaintiff's concern for a prompt and fair disposition of the bad-faith claims following the resolution of the UIM claims. Williamson stated that such concerns could be addressed by the court's control of discovery efforts and trial scheduling following the conclusion of the UIM case.
Détente for the War of AttritionWhether Williamson's decisions amount to the beginning of a shift in the pendulum toward the more practical approach of both severing and staying bad-faith claims in post-Koken matters remains to be seen.
Surely, staying bad-faith discovery during the pendency of the UM/UIM claims is more practical since full discovery on the bad-faith allegations is not allowed in any event until the UM/UIM claim is resolved. More importantly, a trial court order staying bad-faith discovery pending the resolution of the companion UIM claim will delay, if not prevent altogether, a discovery war of attrition and thereby further the overriding interests of judicial economy for all involved.
Daniel E. Cummins is a partner and civil litigator with the Scranton law firm of Foley Comerford & Cummins. His civil litigation blog, Tort Talk, can be viewed at www.TortTalk.com.
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