Thursday, October 11, 2018

Assumption of Risk Doctrine Valid and Can Support Entry of Summary Judgment (But Summary Judgment Denied Here)

In his recent decision in the case of Smerdon v. GEICO, No. 4:16-cv-02122 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 21, 2018 Brann, J.), the court granted in part and denied in part a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant GEICO, and granted a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment by the Plaintiffs in a Post-Koken uninsured motorist matter.

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff was shopping at a Wal-Mart in Mansfield, Tioga County, Pennsylvania when a robber demanded cash from a customer service employee.   The Plaintiff and several others chased the robber out into the parking lot and towards the robber’s car, which the robber had left running.  

While these individuals scuffled with the robber, the Plaintiff entered the passenger side of the vehicle and attempted to remove the keys from the ignition.  The robber put the vehicle in drive, stepped on the gas, and the Plaintiff was injured by the vehicle as a result.  

As the robber had no car insurance, the Plaintiff pursued an uninsured motorist claim against GEICO.  

Under the GEICO uninsured motorist provisions of the policy, it was provided that the Plaintiff must prove that she was “legally entitled to recover” from the operator of an uninsured motor vehicle in order to recover UM benefits.   

The Plaintiff filed a Complaint against GEICO alleging breach of contract and bad faith.  Under the breach of contract claim, the Plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment requiring GEICO to cover her for uninsured motorist coverage.  The Plaintiff filed a bad faith count seeking damages, arguing that GEICO’s handling of her claim amounted to bad faith under 42 Pa. C.S.A. §8371.   

A main issue before the court was whether the assumption of risk doctrine operated as a total bar to the Plaintiff’s recovery such that she was not "legally entitled to recover" against the uninsured operator of the vehicle that injured her.  

Judge Matthew W. Brann
M.D. Pa.
In his Opinion, Judge Brann reaffirmed the continuing validity of the assumption of risk defense under Pennsylvania law.   The court noted that, “[a]lthough disfavored and narrowly applied, assumption of the risk remains a viable affirmative defense under Pennsylvania law.”   See Op. at p. 7 [citations omitted].

Notably, the court additionally confirmed that summary judgment can be granted on the assumption of risk doctrine as a matter of law.   Id.  

In this regard, Judge Brann stated that, “to grant summary judgment on assumption of the risk as a matter of law, the court must – conclusively and beyond question – find that the Plaintiff was subjectively aware of a specific risk, voluntarily accepted it and acted in spite of that risk, and suffered harm contemplated by that specific risk.”  Id.  citing with “See, e.g.” signal, Zeidman v. Fisher, 980 A.2d 637, 641, Pa. Super. 2009).

Here, the court denied GEICO’s motion and granted the Plaintiff’s motion on the assumption of risk issue.   In this regard, Judge Brann found that there were no facts that demonstrated that the Plaintiff was aware of the particular danger from which she was ultimately injured.  

More specifically, there were no facts to establish that the Plaintiff was specifically aware of the risks that the robber would run her over with his vehicle or otherwise cause her to fall down and strike her head on the pavement.   

The Court noted that awareness of a general risk of harm does not amount to an awareness of a specific risk as required by the assumption of risk doctrine.   

The court also held that, under the assumption of risk doctrine, a court should look at what a Plaintiff actually knew, appreciated, and assumed in terms of the risks, rather than what a Plaintiff should have known under the circumstances.   Here, the court found that there were no facts to demonstrate that the Plaintiff was subjectively aware of the danger that would eventually befall her.  

Judge Brann also found that there were no circumstances where the risk of harm was so obvious with this case in that the Plaintiff implied relieved the robber from exercising due care for the Plaintiff’s safety.   

Accordingly, based upon the above factors, the court concluded that the assumption of risk doctrine did not serve to bar the Plaintiff’s claims.  
The court also added that, to the extent that GEICO questions the reasonableness of the Plaintiff’s actions at trial, that is an inquiry that should be resolved through comparative negligence principles and not assumption of the risk principles.  The court noted that whether the Plaintiff acted reasonably under the circumstances remains an issue for the jury to decide.   

On the separate bad faith claim, GEICO asserted that it did not act in bad faith because it had a reasonable basis to assert the assumption of the risk doctrine as an affirmative defense and given that GEICO did not unreasonably delay the matter in evaluating the case presented.  

After reviewing the law of bad faith under §8371, Judge Brann held that the Plaintiff cannot sustain her burden of proof on the bad faith claim.   The court found that GEICO had a reasonable basis to question coverage because the assumption of risk doctrine remains a valid defense under Pennsylvania law.   

The Court found that the fact that GEICO ultimately erroneously relied upon that doctrine in this case, did not advance the Plaintiff’s bad faith claim because the presence or absence of bad faith does not turn on the legal correctness of the basis for a carrier’s denial of an insured’s claim.   

The court additionally noted that, even if it was assumed that GEICO lacked a reasonable basis to rely upon the assumption of risk doctrine as an affirmative defense, the Plaintiff still failed to present clear and convincing evidence that GEICO knew or recklessly disregarded that lack of a reasonable basis as required by bad faith liability.   

Judge Brann reiterated that, under the bad faith statute, the Plaintiff’s burden of proof is “substantial: ‘Bad faith must be proven by clear and convincing evidence and not merely insinuated.  This heightened standard requires evidence so clear, direct, weighty, and convincing as to enable a clear conviction, without hesitation, about whether or not the Defendants acted in bad faith.’”   [citations omitted].  

The court additionally found that the Plaintiff could not show that GEICO unreasonably delayed in the handling of her claim as the parties communicated with each other over several months in an effort to resolve the case.   Judge Brann also noted that, by the time the Plaintiff filed her Complaint, she had still not produced certain documentation, including the police report, requested by the carrier.   As such, the court found that any delay incurred in GEICO’s resolution of Plaintiff’s claims cannot be construed as unreasonable.  

In the end, the court noted that, because no reasonable jury could find in the Plaintiff’s favor, GEICO’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the bad faith claim was granted. 

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.  Here is a LINK to the companion Order of Court.

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