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NELSON v. STATE FARM MUT. AUTO. INS. CO.
December 12, 1997
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE CO.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: DALZELL
Defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company has filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, contending that plaintiff Craig Nelson's action is time-barred.
At issue is the question of whether under Pennsylvania law an insured's action for bad faith against an employer under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8371 is subject to the two year statute of limitations for torts, see 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5524(7),
the four year statute of limitations for contracts, see 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5525(8),
or the six year "catchall" statute of limitations under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5527.
The question of which statute of limitations applies to an action under § 8371 is one that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has not addressed. When the highest court of a state has not addressed an issue of law, a federal court sitting in diversity must predict how that court would decide the issue were it confronted with the problem. See Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 82 L. Ed. 1188, 58 S. Ct. 817 (1938); Packard v. Provident Nat. Bank, 994 F.2d 1039, 1046 (3d Cir. 1993). In carrying out that task, a federal court must "consider relevant state precedents, analogous decisions, considered dicta, scholarly works, and any other reliable data tending convincingly to show how the highest court in the state would decide the issue at hand," Packard, 994 F.2d at 1046, including the decisions of state intermediate appellate courts as well as other state courts on that issue. See Ciccarelli v. Carey Canadian Mines Ltd., 757 F.2d 548, 553 n.3 (3d Cir. 1985) (citing cases).
Bad Faith Actions under Section 8371
In 1990, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8371 to create a statutory remedy for bad faith conduct in the handling of insurance policies. The statute provides:
In an action arising under an insurance policy, if the court finds that the insurer has acted in bad faith toward the insured, the court may take all of the following actions:
(1) Award interest on the amount of the claim from the date the claim was made by the insured in an amount equal to the prime rate of interest plus 3%.
(2) Award punitive damages against the insurer.
(3) Assess court costs and attorney fees against the insurer.
42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8371.
The statute does not define "bad faith" or establish the elements to make out a claim of bad faith. Recent decisions by our Court of Appeals and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, however, suggest a two-part test, both elements of which requiring proof by clear and convincing evidence: "(1) that the insurer lacked a reasonable basis for denying benefits; and (2) that the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis." Klinger v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 115 F.3d 230, 233 (3d Cir. 1997); see also Polselli v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 23 F.3d 747, 752 (3d Cir. 1994); Terletsky v. Prudential Property & Cas. Ins. Co., 437 Pa. Super. 108, 649 A.2d 680, 688 (Pa. Super Ct. 1994).
For statute of limitations purposes, however, what kind of action is one under § 8371?
Section 8371 as a Contractual Cause of Action
It is clear that § 8371 does not sound exclusively in contract law. The fact that one of § 8371's primary remedies is the award of punitive damages illustrates that the statute is not exclusively contract-based. In Pennsylvania, it is well-settled that the purpose of punitive damages is to punish a tortfeasor for outrageous conduct and to deter him and others from similar conduct in the future. See Kirkbride v. Lisbon Contractors, Inc., 521 Pa. 97, 555 A.2d 800, 803 (Pa. 1989).
Pennsylvania law is equally clear that punitive damages are not recoverable in an action for breach of contract. See AM/PM Franchise Assoc. v. Atlantic Richfield, 526 Pa. 110, 584 A.2d 915, 927 (Pa. 1990) (holding in a contract case that "we do not believe that our case law or the Uniform Commercial Code authorizes a legitimate claim for exemplary damages"). See also Thorsen v. Iron and Glass Bank, 328 Pa. Super. 135, 476 A.2d 928, 932 (Pa. Super. 1984) (citing cases).
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the emerging jurisprudence, albeit not from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, treats § 8371 as creating a separate and distinct cause of action from the underlying contract claim against the insurer. See e.g. Romano v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 646 A.2d 1228, 1231 (Pa. Super 1994) ("the emerging jurisprudence treats Section 8371 as creating a separate and distinct cause of action"); March v. Paradise Mutual Insur. Co., 435 Pa. Super. 597, 646 A.2d 1254, 1256 (Pa. Super 1994) ("a claim brought under section 8371 is a cause of action which is separate and distinct from the underlying contract claim"); Boring v. Erie Ins. Group, 434 Pa. Super. 40, 641 A.2d 1189, 1190 (Pa. Super 1994) (holding that although appellant's insurance coverage claim had not yet been decided, as appellant's bad faith claim was premised upon § 8371, it constituted a clear and distinct cause of action and, therefore, the dismissal of appellant's § 8371 claim was instantly appealable). See also Younis Bros. & Co. v. Cigna Worldwide Ins. Co., 899 F. Supp. 1385, 1396 (E.D. Pa. 1995) ("Courts have held that the Legislature enacted § 8371 to curtail bad faith practices on the part of insurers by affording insureds a cause of action that is separate and independent from the claim on the insurance contract"); Margolies v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., 810 F. Supp. 637, 642 (E.D. Pa. 1992) ("Even if ...
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