How To Stop Fraud
Insurance fraud is more often than not, successful. No one knows how much is taken by insurance fraud perpetrators from the insurance industry. It has been estimated to take as little as $80 billion to as much as $300 billion or more a year from the insurance buying public.
The Tort of Bad Faith Encourages Fraud
In the 1960’s and 70’s the insurance industry abused some insureds to avoid paying legitimate claims. Without a factual basis, insureds were accused of arson or other variations on insurance fraud. Indemnity payments were refused on the flimsiest of excuses. People were found to have diseases that only horses could catch. Disability payments were refused because an insured was wheeled in her wheelchair to church one day and, therefore, was not totally house-confined. Insureds were driven into bankruptcy when reasonable demands within policy limits were refused.
To stop this abuse, the courts of the state of California invented the tort of bad faith breach of an insurance contract. Many other states have followed the lead. Until the invention of the tort of bad faith all that an insured could collect from an insurer that wrongfully denied a claim were the benefits due under the policy. In the tort of bad faith, the courts allowed the insureds to collect, in addition, the entire panoply of tort damages, including punitive damages.
The tort of bad faith worked as a deterrent. Insurers treated the insureds better. The threat of punitive damages made insurers wary of rejecting any claim. The creation of the tort of bad faith was in many ways a good thing for insurers and insureds. What the courts that created the tort of bad faith did not recognize was that it was also the key to Pandora’s box.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
The “Law of Unintended Consequences” can be defined as the understanding that actions of people — and especially of governments or the courts — always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Insurance is controlled by the courts, through appellate decisions, and by governmental agencies through statute and regulation. Compliance with the appellate decisions, statutes and regulations – different in the various states – is exceedingly difficult and expensive.
As Justice Kaus of the California Supreme Court noted:
The problem is not so much the theory of the bad faith cases, as its application. It seems to me that attorneys who handle policy claims against insurance companies are no longer interested in collecting on those claims, but spend their wits and energies trying to maneuver the insurers into committing acts which the insureds can later trot out as evidence of bad faith. [White v. Western Title Ins. Co., 40 Cal. 3d 870, 710 P.2d 309, 221 Cal. Rptr. 509 (Cal. 12/31/1985)]
The logarithmic growth of insurance fraud in the state of California, and other states that have allowed tort damages for bad faith breach of insurance contracts, may be directly traced, in part, to the judicial creation of the tort of bad faith. Before the tort of bad faith, insurers with a reasonable belief that an insured was presenting a fraudulent claim would simply refuse to pay it with a statement to the insured that the claim was fraudulent. Persons perpetrating the fraud did, in most cases, accept the refusal as a cost of doing business and went on to the next fraudulent claim. After the recognition of the tort of bad faith, those who perpetrated fraudulent insurance claims that were denied went to lawyers instead. Suits for bad faith popped up like wild flowers in the desert after a rainstorm.
How the Tort of Bad Faith Helped Fraud Perpetrators
Juries, angered by insurers accusing their insureds of fraud, punished the insurers with multimillion dollar judgments. After each judgment, hundreds of cases settled (even though no monies were owed) for fear of being painted with the same brush. Fraud units that had been instituted in the 70’s were disbanded in the late 80’s because of fear of punitive damage judgments.
The courts, legislatures and the insurance departments of the various states must recognize that an insurer with the best of all possible fraud investigation units will err. A company with the highly trained and motivated fraud investigation unit (compelled to exist by statute statutes) made up of professional investigators and attorneys will eventually err. The public, and those who serve on juries, must understand that an aggressive fraud investigation, even if it reaches an incorrect result, is not malicious.
Today, if a jury believes the insurer was wrong in its decision, it will award punitive damages, regardless of the instructions read to it by the judge. Insurers are not liked. The bad publicity that was given to insurers by the early bad faith cases has poisoned the public image of insurers. Insurers are often prejudged. Some defense lawyers contend that before the first witness is sworn in three jurors are lost and counsel must convince the remaining nine while the plaintiff only needs to convince six of the jurors without anti-insurer prejudice.
As a business necessity, insurers must have the confidence of the public that they are financially sound, secure and have an overabundance of funds available to pay claims. The need to show the security of the company to the public has the effect of convincing juries that a multi-million dollar verdict against the insurer will not hurt it but will merely get its attention. Plaintiffs’ lawyers disingenuously tell juries that they don’t want to harm the insurance company. They argue that a $10 million verdict might cause an itch in the corporate pocketbook sufficient to cause management to scratch away the need to reject claims. The argument is hard for a jury of working people to withstand.
The tort of bad faith, and the punitive damages that seem to go with it, have, in my opinion, served their purpose. Insurers now have professional claims departments. Insureds are almost universally treated with courtesy and respect. Legitimate claims are paid with alacrity. Insurance fraud continues to grow.
The fear of punitive damages has made the fight against fraud almost impossible.
When I actively practiced law in California I had to contend daily with an insurer who wanted to fight fraud aggressively but who needed to decide to pay what appeared to be a fraudulent claim rather than face the exposure of a bad faith or punitive damage judgment.
I can, as my mentors taught me 45 years ago, state my opinion that an insurer should spend millions for defense and not a dime for tribute. However, practical insurance professionals have a need to resolve litigation as inexpensively as possible and will make a business decision to pay the fraud rather than take a chance on an adverse verdict. The decision may be an intelligent business decision but it is morally wrong and violates the reason for the existence of insurance.
As with all things in insurance, the attitudes of insurers move in cycles. More often than not, I am now called upon to testify in bad faith cases that the insurer insists on taking to trial by jury rather than pay off a scofflaw. I can only hope that this cycle continues and more attempts at fraud are defeated.
In my experience, when an insurer desires to defend a fraudulent claim it must have first completed a thorough investigation and collected sufficient admissible evidence to prove to a trier of fact that its denial of the claim was appropriate in accordance with the policy contract and local law. If not they will see me testifying for the other side.
This article and all of the blog posts on this site summarize cases published by courts of the various states and the United States. The court decisions have been modified from the actual language of the court decisions, were condensed for ease of reading, and convey the opinions of the author regarding each case.
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 49 years in the insurance business.
Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of the first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.
Look to National Underwriter Company for the new Zalma Insurance Claims Library, at www.nationalunderwriter.com/ZalmaLibrary The new books are Insurance Law, Mold Claims Coverage Guide, Construction Defects Coverage Guide and Insurance Claims: A Comprehensive Guide
The American Bar Association, Tort & Insurance Practice Section has published Mr. Zalma’s book “The Insurance Fraud Deskbook” available at http://shop.americanbar.org/eBus/Store/ProductDetails.aspx?productId=214624, or 800-285-2221 which is presently available and “Diminution of Value Damages” available at http://shop.americanbar.org/eBus/Store/ProductDetails.aspx?productId=203226972
The author and publisher disclaim any liability, loss, or risk incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents of this blog. The information provided is not a substitute for the advice of a competent insurance, legal, or other professional. The Information provided at this site should not be relied on as legal advice. Legal advice cannot be given without full consideration of all relevant information relating to an individual situation.