Insurance Company’s Duty to Reasonably Investigate Claims Under Washington law

The Washington State Association for Justice recently published McKean Evans’ article regarding insurers’ duty to reasonably investigate claims. The article, entitled Insurance Company’s Duty to Reasonably Investigate Your Client’s Claim a Powerful Tool for Making Client Whole, discusses the legal basis for insurers’ duty to reasonably investigate claims. Evans discusses how insurers’ breach of this duty is actionable and can be used to rebut typical insurer defense strategies in insurance bad faith litigation.

Among other things, the article explores:

  • How an insurer’s breach of its duty to investigate establishes liability in an insurance bad faith action;
  • The Washington Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Coventry Assocs. v. Am. States Ins. Co., 136 Wn. 2d 269, 276, 961 P.2d 933, 935 (1998), establishing that the duty to reasonably investigate claims is a fundamental part of the benefit the policyholder receives in exchange for their premiums;
  • How the duty to reasonably investigate requires an insurer to base its coverage decisions on “adequate information” and not “overemphasize its own interests;” consider new information the insured provides in response to the insurer’s denial of her claim; and reasonably consider a policyholder’s final coverage demand under the Insurance Fair Conduct Act;
  • Facts to look for in investigating an insurer’s bad faith that would help prove the insurer failed to reasonably investigate the claim.

 

Washington Federal Court Rejects Insurer Efforts to Escape Lawsuit by Paying Benefits Retroactively

One important right policyholders have is to be fully compensated or “made whole” when the insurer improperly denies coverage or payment of benefits.  Some insurers argue, incorrectly, that they can avoid making the policyholder whole by paying the disputed policy benefit after the policyholder files a lawsuit.  That’s incorrect because by the time the policyholder files suit, they’ve typically lost significantly more than just the disputed policy benefit: they’ve hired lawyers or experts, paid for repairs or other bills out of pocket, or lost business income because they couldn’t afford to effect repairs without insurance coverage.

In its April 23, 2018 decision in Williams v. Foremost Insurance Co., 2:17-CV-1113-RSM, 2018 WL 1907523 (W.D. Wash. Apr. 23, 2018), the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington analyzed and rejected the argument that the insurer can escape a bad faith lawsuit by retroactively paying the benefits it denied in the first instance.

Williams brought a claim for vandalism damage under her insurance policy with Foremost.  Foremost denied Williams’ claim for insurance benefits, arguing that the vandalism was caused by people who were Williams’ tenants at the time of the damage.  Foremost ignored Williams’ argument the loss was covered because the vandals were former as opposed to current tenants.

Williams brought a lawsuit alleging claims for bad faith and violations of Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act (“IFCA”) and Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”); those claims entitled Williams to damages beyond the amount of the disputed insurance benefit, such as attorney’s fees, court costs and treble damages.

The court promptly ruled that coverage existed and ordered Foremost to pay the disputed benefits.  Following that ruling, Foremost paid Williams $187,001.43 in benefits owed.

Foremost then asked the court to dismiss Williams’ claims for bad faith and for CPA and IFCA violations.  Foremost claimed that, since it paid the policy benefits Williams claimed, Williams had no right to assert any additional claims.  The Court rejected Foremost’s arguments.

First, and most importantly, the court rejected Foremost’s argument that Williams’ remaining claims were barred because Foremost ultimately paid the insurance benefits, and that Williams could not bring further claims without producing “her complete financial records.”  The court determined “Foremost’s insurance payment to Ms. Williams is irrelevant to the issue of bad faith” and that “Washington State law does not appear to provide that retroactive payment for an insurance claim extinguishes all the alleged harm to a plaintiff[.]”

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Snow lake trail, Central Cascades.

Next, the Court rejected Foremost’s argument that its claim denial was reasonable in light of the evidence Foremost had at the time.  The Court noted that Foremost’s evidence showed only that the vandalism was caused by former – not current – tenants, and that Foremost had no evidence that the vandals were Williams’ tenants at the time the vandalism occurred.  Moreover, Williams explicitly advised Foremost the vandals were not tenants at the time of the damage.

Finally, the Court also emphasized that an insurer’s bad faith denial of coverage injures the insured beyond merely the dollar amount of the policy benefit.  In this case, Williams suffered additional damages because Foremost’s wrongful denial delayed her ability to repair the vandalism damage to her building; Williams also had to hire an expert, take construction loans, and perform some repairs herself.

The Williams decision emphasizes insurers cannot escape bad faith lawsuits merely by paying the disputed benefits after the fact.

 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting To Make An Insurance Claim – A Cheat Sheet

So you’ve had a loss – perhaps a tree fell on your house, your car was wrecked or you became injured or disabled – and it’s time to dust off that insurance policy to see if you’re covered. Maybe you already made a claim but your insurer denied it for reasons that don’t make sense – or, perhaps even more frustrating, the insurer refuses even tell you whether they’re going to pay your claim or not. Or maybe you’ve just recently purchased a policy and want to know your rights.

This cheat sheet is a list of some issues you may want to consider. It tells you (1) the basic information you need; (2) some of your basic rights under Washington law; and (3) some helpful tips and “best practices.”

This is only a summary – your rights and obligations depend on the specific circumstances. If you think you might have a claim or dispute involving insurance, it’s wise to consult a lawyer. Insurance is complex and it is easy to accidentally put yourself in a disadvantage or even lose your rights entirely.

Basic Information You Need

Do I Have The Policy Documents? The insurance policy is absolutely critical. It states your coverage, your rights, and the insurer’s rights. It likely includes provisions requiring you to take certain action – like notifying your insurer of a claim within a certain period of time – in order to preserve your rights.

Many people are surprised to learn that their declarations page, summary plan description, or brochure explaining their coverage isn’t the policy. An insurance policy virtually always consists of a collection of multiple separate documents. For instance, a life insurance policy might consist of an application, a policy contract, and several addenda, riders or attachments. There are often additional documents such as annual statements that are also critical to understanding your rights under the policy.

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The trail to Gem Lake, Snoqualmie Pass

Did I Get The Policy Through My Employer? Insurance policies you acquired through or in connection with your employer are different from regular policies. Employer-related policies are subject to a federal law called the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA for short). ERISA can apply even if the policy was issued by an insurance company that’s not your employer, and even if your employer doesn’t pay your premium. ERISA is very different from the law governing normal insurance policies; it’s complex and imposes special rules and deadlines. If you think your policy might be subject to ERISA, it’s important to pay extra close attention and consult a qualified attorney.

Do I Have All The Facts? If you have a claim or think you might want to make a claim, it’s crucial you know the facts. Make sure you obtain all the documents that are potentially relevant. If it’s a health or disability claim, have all the relevant medical records. If it’s a car crash, have the police report.

Know Your Rights

Here are some of the basic rights you have as a Washington policyholder:

You Have The Right To Be Treated Fairly. Washington law imposes a duty on insurers to act in “good faith.” Good faith generally means the insurer must treat you honestly, made decisions on your claim based on adequate information, and never put their interests over yours. (Remember that policyholders also have to act in good faith, so be sure you’re always honest when dealing with your insurer).

You Have The Right To Have The Insurer Follow The Policy. The policy is a contract between you and the insurer. The insurer has to follow it. The insurer can’t try to re-write the policy after you make a claim.

You Have The Right To Prompt Claim Responses. Washington law requires your insurer to respond to your claim within a specific time – often ten days – and acknowledge that they received your claim. Beyond the initial claim, insurers generally have to respond to your communications about the claim in a reasonable time. The insurer must also tell you whether or not they will pay the claim within a reasonable time after you provide the documentation they need to made a decision.

You Have The Right To A Full Investigation. Insurers have to decide whether to pay claims based on a reasonable investigation. That means your insurer has to make a reasonable effort to look for evidence that’s relevant to your claim. They can’t just consider the evidence that supports denying the claim.

Best Practices

Below are some helpful best practices to keep in mind when dealing with a possible insurance claim.

Keep A Paper Trail. Make sure you document everything that’s relevant to the policy or your claim. It’s especially critical to document all your communications with the insurer or with third parties (doctors, mechanics, potential witnesses, etc.). Communicate via email or hard copy mail when practical. If you have a phone call or in-person meeting with an adjuster, take notes, then send them an email summarizing your understanding of the discussion and inviting them to correct you if they think you got it wrong. If you lose money or have other harm because your insurer isn’t doing what they’re supposed to, document it. If it’s not on paper, it never happened.

Cooperate With Reasonable Requests. If your insurer makes a reasonable request for information or similar assistance with your claim, comply promptly. Remember you have a duty to act in good faith, and your policy may affirmatively require you to cooperate in making a claim. That doesn’t mean bending over backwards, but you should comply with reasonable requests. If you wind up in court, you want to be sure that it’s your insurer and not you who the judge sees as being unreasonable.

Be Proactive. Procrastination will never improve your position and it can make you lose your rights entirely if you miss a deadline. Promptly notify your insurer if you think you have a claim. Include as much information about the claim as possible. Follow up with the adjuster if they are slow in getting back to you. Reach out to third parties who might have relevant information. Generally, delay in processing your claim benefits your insurer – not you.

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Mount Rainier