Exploring the Standard for Recovering Penalties From an “Arbitrary and Capricious” Insurer

Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist (UM) coverage is designed to protect a policyholder against injury or loss inflicted by another driver who has inadequate insurance or no insurance coverage at all. Louisiana statute provides that “an insurer owes to his insured a duty of good faith and fair dealing,” which includes fairly and promptly settling claims with the insured. La. R.S. 22:1220. An insurer who breaches this duty is liable for damages that result from the breach. In order to establish a cause of action for penalties and or attorney fees, a plaintiff must show that (1) the insurer received sufficient proof the of loss; (2) the insurer failed to tender payment within 30 days; and (3) the insurer’s failure to pay is “arbitrary, capricious, or without probable cause.” La. R.S. 22:658. Louisiana courts have held that “arbitrary, capricious, or without probable cause” is “synonymous with ‘vexatious,’” and that a “vexatious refusal to pay” means it is “unjustified, without reasonable or probable cause or excuse.” The courts impose penalties on an insurer when the facts of the situation “negate probable cause for nonpayment,” but tend to avoid them when an insurer can point to “a reasonable basis to defend the claim and acts in good-faith reliance on that defense.” Pointedly, it is well settled that “bad faith should not be inferred from an insurer’s failure to pay within the statutory time limits when … reasonable doubt exists.” Instead, penalties are appropriate when the insurer refuses to tender a reasonable payment in an amount over which “reasonable minds could not differ.”

Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently applied this jurisprudence in the case of Mitte v. Progressive Security Insurance Co.. On April 20, 2004, Dyna Mitte was severely injured when her vehicle was hit by an underinsured driver in Lafayette Parish. Mitte had UM coverage through Progressive and filed a claim after receiving only $32,000 from the other driver’s insurance company. Progressive made pre-trial tenders to Mitte that amounted to $393,624. Mitte then filed suit seeking penalties and attorney fees on the basis of those tenders that she alleged were “inadequate and untimely.” A jury found that the tenders made by Progressive were not adequate and awarded Mitte $1.6 million. However, the jury declined to award her penalties and attorney fees. Mitte appealed, arguing that the jury erred in failing to find that Progressive was arbitrary or capricious.

Mitte’s assignment of error was based in part on her argument that because the jury awarded a large sum compared to the tenders made by Progressive, Progressive was necessarily arbitrary or capricious. The court rejected this argument, stating that Progressive was not required to “meet some percentage of the total claim awarded [Mitte] to avoid penalties and attorney fees.” Rather, Progressive “needed to tender only a figure over which reasonable minds could not differ.” Further, the record included several factual disputes described by Progressive’s adjuster at trial. For instance, there was uncertainty over whether Mitte made a claim for lost earning capacity and also as to whether a gastric bypass surgery was related to the auto accident. Thus, although the jury ultimately concluded that Progressive undervalued Mitte’s general damages “by a fairly large extent,” there was a reasonable factual basis for the jury’s finding that Progressive was neither arbitrary nor capricious. Because the court could not find that the jury’s determination was manifestly erroneous, it affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

If you find yourself in a dispute over a claim with an insurance company, call the Berniard firm today at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an experienced attorney who can help you obtain the recovery you deserve.

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