Barry Zalma | Zalma on Insurance | November 8, 2019
Release of all Claims Defeats Bad Faith Suit
First party property insurers seldom use a release of all claims to resolve a fire claim. The only time a release is used is when there is a serious dispute between the insurer and the insured and threats of extra-contractual litigation. For example if an insurer believes the insured committed fraud or attempted an arson for profit but has insufficient evidence to prove the fraud without years of serious litigation, a settlement paying more than indemnity, but less than the cost of the litigation, will be reached with a release. Similarly, if the insured is litigious, threatens a bad faith suit on first contact, a release might be required to protect the insurer from unnecessary litigation.
In Perfection, LLC D/B/A Carl Krueger Construction, Inc., Liberty Mutual Group Inc., v. Edward Cole, A/k/a Carl Cole D/b/a North Shore Station, NNS, LLC D/B/A North Shore Station, Cecole Properties, LLC, Debtor, Appeal No. 2017AP242, State of Wisconsin in Court of Appeals District II (October 23, 2019) Edward Cole appealed, acting pro se (as his own lawyer), from a judgment which held him liable to Perfection, LLC and eliminated his case against his insurer.
This case arises out of a fire loss that occurred at Cole’s laundromat business on January 12, 2013. Cole’s business had insurance coverage with Liberty Mutual. In furtherance of his insurance claim, Cole submitted expenses relating to his retention of a restoration contractor (Perfection).
After exchanging multiple emails, Cole and Liberty Mutual reached an agreement as to the final amount of the insurance claim. Liberty Mutual agreed to pay Cole a total of $298,232.99. In return, Cole signed a policy release in which he agreed to release all claims against Liberty Mutual, including any extra contractual claims.
On February 28, 2014, Perfection filed suit against Cole for breach of contract, alleging that he had withheld payment for some of its work. Cole filed counterclaims against Perfection, asserting breach of contract and breach of warranty. He also filed a cross-complaint against Liberty Mutual, alleging that it had acted in bad faith. In order to pursue this latter claim, Cole sought to rescind the policy release executed eight months earlier, claiming that he had signed it under duress.
Liberty Mutual sucessfuly moved for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of Cole’s cross-complaint. The court refused to allow Cole to rescind the policy release because he did not, as a matter of law, show the elements necessary to establish duress.
As the new trial date approached, Cole’s new attorney also moved to withdraw, citing disagreement with Cole over strategy. Cole asked the court to reject the motion; however, he also began acting pro se, submitting numerous filings. Ultimately, the court denied counsel’s motion, noting that it had “gone through this before” and wanted to keep the case on track. Accordingly, it refused to consider Cole’s pro se filings.
The matter proceeded to trial where a jury found Cole liable to Perfection for breach of contract and punitive damages. The jury rejected Cole’s counterclaims against Perfection.
Perfection’s action was fully litigated in state court with the jury. Cole claimed that the circuit court erred when it dismissed his cross-complaint against Liberty Mutual. He accuses the court of failing to consider facts in support of his bad-faith claim.
Summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine issues of material fact and one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Court of Appeals was satisfied that the circuit court properly granted Liberty Mutual’s motion for summary judgment because, regardless of the merits of Cole’s bad-faith claim, the policy release barred him from bringing it.
Mr. Cole was not a very reasonable insured. He caused Liberty to enter into a negotiated settlement raising enough concern that it required – to effect the settlement for more than it believed it owed – required that Cole sign a release of all claims including extra contractual (bad faith) claims. Liberty was right about Cole. Cole’s lawyers begged to be relieved of the obligation to represent him. Even with the release Liberty was sued for bad faith and needed to make a summary judgment motion and defend that motion on appeal. The release protected Liberty but Cole still cost them a great deal of money defending against his frivolous suit and appeal.