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Brown v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

January 6, 2015

SHIRLEY C. BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JOI ELIZABETH PEAKE, Magistrate Judge.

This insurance dispute comes before the Court on a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff Shirley Brown [Doc. #17] and a Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company ("Nationwide" or "Defendant Nationwide") [Doc. #18]. This action has been referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) [Doc. #24]. For the reasons set out below, the Court will set this matter for a hearing and for a final pretrial conference on February 19, 2015 at 9:30 a.m.

I. FACTS, CLAIMS, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In this case, Plaintiff asserts claims for unfair and deceptive trade practices and bad faith refusal to settle an insurance claim. These claims arise out of an automobile accident that occurred on May 28, 2007, in Guilford County, North Carolina, involving a vehicle driven by Plaintiff and a vehicle driven by Mr. Jonathan Drinkard. Plaintiff suffered bodily injury in the accident. At the time of the accident, Plaintiff had underinsured motorist coverage with Defendant Nationwide of $100, 000, and the vehicle driven by Mr. Drinkard was covered by an insurance policy issued by Defendant Nationwide with liability limits of $30, 000.

On April 14, 2010, Plaintiff Brown filed a tort action against Mr. Drinkard in Guilford County Superior Court seeking damages for personal injury. In his Answer, Mr. Drinkard admitted negligence in failing to keep a proper lookout, but denied proximately causing Plaintiff Brown's injuries. The parties engaged in discovery during 2010 leading up to a mediation proceeding held on December 2, 2010. In the present suit, Plaintiff contends that Defendant committed unfair and deceptive insurance practices and bad faith refusal to settle, based on Defendant's conduct at and immediately after that December 2, 2010 mediation. Although that mediation was set with respect to Plaintiff's liability claim, it is undisputed that Defendant's agent was also there to at least "monitor" the underinsured claim, and Defendant expressed a willingness at the mediation to settle both the liability claim and the underinsured claim for $45, 000. In addition, Defendant's agent testified at his deposition that if Defendant had no underinsured coverage at issue, Defendant would have settled for the $30, 000 policy limits. (Swann Dep. at 12 [Doc. #17-4].) After the December 2, 2010 mediation, Defendant requested additional documents and records from Plaintiff. Plaintiff then filed the present suit, alleging unfair and deceptive trade practices and bad faith refusal to settle. Defendant subsequently tendered the $30, 000 liability limits on Mr. Drinkard's policy on December 21, 2010, nineteen days after the mediation. Defendant contends that it tendered the limits after receiving the additional requested medical records; Plaintiff contends that the document requests were harassment designed to force Plaintiff to settle the liability and underinsured claims together for a lesser amount, and that the liability policy limits were only tendered as a result of her filing the present suit.

After Defendant tendered the policy limits on the liability policy, the parties proceeded to arbitration as to the underinsured claim, and Plaintiff was ultimately awarded $82, 500, representing the $30, 000 in liability limits already paid by Defendant Nationwide and $52, 500 in underinsured motorist coverage under Plaintiff's automobile insurance policy with Defendant Nationwide. Defendant Nationwide has paid the arbitration award.

Plaintiff filed her Complaint in the present action in Guilford County state court and Defendant Nationwide removed the action to this Court on the basis of diversity-of-citizenship jurisdiction. Plaintiff's First Claim for Relief is for Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices pursuant to North Carolina General Statutes § 75-1.1(a), based on alleged violations of North Carolina General Statutes § 58-63-15(11)(f), (h), & (m), and based on alleged refusal to promptly settle the liability claim after liability was reasonably clear, in order to influence settlement negotiations on the underinsured claim. (Compl. at 3.)[1] She charges a violation of Section 58-63-15(11)(f) by failing to attempt good faith efforts to effectuate prompt, fair, and equitable settlement, a violation of Section 58-63-15(11)(h) by attempting to settle a claim for less than the amount to which a reasonable man would have believed he was entitled, and a violation of Section 58-63-15(11)(m) by failing to promptly settle claims where liability has become reasonably clear under one portion of the insurance policy coverage in order to influence settlements under other portions of the insurance policy coverage. Plaintiff's Second Claim for Relief is that "Defendant committed tort[i]ous and bad-faith breach of contract during its dealings with the Plaintiff" by refusing to settle the primary liability claim in an effort to coerce Plaintiff to settle the primary liability claim and the underinsured claim together without the use of arbitration on the underinsured claim.[2] Plaintiff seeks damages, attorney's fees, and costs as relief.

Plaintiff seeks summary judgment only on her bad faith claim, contending that the evidence establishes a bad faith refusal to settle as a matter of law. Defendant seeks summary judgment on both claims against it. Defendant argues (1) that Plaintiff cannot rely upon the statements or conduct that occurred at mediation as evidence of liability due to the confidential nature of mediation pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-38.1(l); (2) that there is no cause of action for third-party bad faith or unfair and deceptive trade practices under North Carolina law; (3) that Plaintiff has failed to create a genuine issue of material fact on her claims; and (4) that Plaintiff has not presented evidence of any damages. The Court will consider each of these contentions in turn.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate only when no genuine issue of material fact exists. Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1011 (4th Cir. 1991). A genuine issue of fact exists if the evidence presented could lead a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A court considering a motion for summary judgment must view all facts and draw all reasonable inferences from the evidence before it in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id . The proponent of summary judgment "bears the initial burden of pointing to the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Temkin v. Frederick Cnty. Comm'rs, 945 F.2d 716, 718 (4th Cir. 1991) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). If the movant carries this burden, then the burden "shifts to the non-moving party to come forward with facts sufficient to create a triable issue of fact." Id. at 718-19 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48).

B. Admissibility of Conduct Occurring at Mediation

Defendant first contends that under North Carolina General Statute § 7A-38.1(l), statements and conduct that occurred during the court-ordered mediation are inadmissible to support the Plaintiff's claims. Section 7A-38.1(l) provides that:

Evidence of statements made and conduct occurring in a mediated settlement conference or other settlement proceeding conducted under this section, whether attributable to a party, the mediator, other neutral, or a neutral observer present at the settlement proceeding, shall not be subject to discovery and shall be ...

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