NJ Insurer’s Bad Faith Failure to Settle Issue for Fact Finder

When a jury returns a verdict well in excess of an insured’s policy limit after an insurer refused an offer to settle within the limit, a bad faith claim is not a matter of strict liability. In fact, the determination of whether the insurer acted in bad faith is a fact sensitive question that generally will require a plenary hearing or trial.

In Wood v. New Jersey Manufacturers Ins. Co., the plaintiff postal worker alleged cervical and lumbar injuries were caused when she backed into a fence and a dog jumped up on her. She had cervical and lumbar surgeries and contemplated further surgery as the trial approached. A court appointed arbitrator had awarded the plaintiff $600,000 attributing 90% to the insured for a net award against the insured dog owner for $540,000, $40,000 above the policy limit. The defense rejected the arbitrator’s award, and at trial, the jury awarded a total of $2.4 million with an allocation of 51% to the insured (49% to the co-defendant property owner) for a net verdict of $1.4 million. Notably both the claims adjuster and the defense attorney had recommended settlement within the policy limit, but this had been rejected by the insurer’s Major Claims Committee.

In an appeal by the insurer of summary judgment on the bad faith claim, the Appellate Division reversed and ordered further proceedings that would address the insurer’s reasonableness in their evaluation of the claim. The court recognized that an insurer could disagree with its counsel and even its adjuster’s evaluation of the case. A full hearing would give the insurer an opportunity to explain why it did so and allow a fact finder to fully assess the credibility and persuasiveness of the witnesses.

Thus, an insurer is not expected to be “gifted with the powers of divination or of accurate prophecy,” and it will not automatically be held in bad faith when a jury awards an amount in excess of the policy limit. On the other hand, the insurer will need to be prepared to persuade a fact finder of the reasonableness of its actions.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please email Denise at dricci@wcmlaw.com.

See Wood v. New Jersey Manufacturers Ins. Co. at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/a1768-08.pdf