Auto insurance is designed to provide benefits after an accident to help streamline payments and help the injured parties heal. During a stressful, unusual time, an insured may not be in the state of mind to ensure the company has her or his best interests in mind. To protect consumers, the Massachusetts legislature prohibited insurance companies from participating in unfair claim settlement practices, delineated in G. L. c. 176D, § 3(9)(f) and G. L. c. 93A, § 2. A recently issued Massachusetts opinion (No. 16-P-927) reviews whether or not an insurance company committed unfair claim settlement practices when it conditioned the payment of the policy limit on the release of claims against its insured.
The Appeals Court ultimately held that it did not but gave insight into what does and does not qualify as an unfair settlement. The front-seat passenger was seriously injured after the driver crashed his rental car. The driver rented the car for work a few weeks before and was covered by his employer’s primary commercial automobile insurance policy, as well as two excess insurance policies. The primary coverage was $1 million, and the excess policies provided $5 million worth of coverage each. Following the accident, the passenger filed suit against the driver and his employer, alleging negligence.
The primary insurer, providing the defense for both the driver and the company, exchanged several letters discussing the settlement of the negligence claim with the injured party. In the initial demand letter, the injured passenger claimed the driver’s negligence was reasonably clear, and the parties were liable for his damages, totaling over $1 million. The letter offered that in exchange for the $1 million insurance policy limit, he would release the insurer from further claims of any kind. The passenger did not offer to release the driver or the employer, since he intended to pursue claims for additional damages. However, the injured person noted he was willing to enter into an agreement with the driver and the driver’s employer if the insurer met his demand for the $1 million policy limit.