Erie Ins. Exchange v. Bristol: SOL on UM claims begins to run at refusal to arbitrate
On July 22, 2005, Mr. Bristol was injured when he was struck in a hit and run accident within the scope of his employment in Upper Dublin Township (childhood home of Josh Singer, an Emmy-nominee and Oscar winner). Two years later, Bristol’s attorney put Erie on notice of the uninsured motorist (UM) claim, and Erie responded with a “reservation of rights” letter. Both parties agreed to several of the arbitrators and engaged in negotiation. Bristol had to put the matter on hold for a few years when he was incarcerated on unrelated matters. But negotiations stalled, and in May 2013, Erie filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a ruling that Bristol’s 4-year breach of contract statute of limitations (SOL) had run pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 5525.
This is an issue of first impression for SCOPA, although the Superior Court has a long line of precedents on the matter.
Majority by Mundy: Clock starts ticking on breach
Justice Mundy, speaking for the 6-1 majority, rules that a UM claim’s SOL begins to run at the date of the insurer’s breach, which could be at the date of the denial of coverage to the insured, or the date of some other breach of a contractual obligation, such as the date that the insurer refused to arbitrate. This ruling is based on the principle that it is “the accrual of the right of action that starts a limitations period to run.” This accords with the majority of jurisdictions.
There are essentially three ways to determine when the SOL for a UM claim begins to run: at the denial of coverage, as argued by Bristol, at the time the injured party knows the tortfeasor was uninsured (or underinsured), which is what Erie urged, or in a more absolute sense, at the date of the accident. The Court denies Erie’s argument that insurance contracts are different from other contracts subject to the general four-year SOL, and finds that Bristol had no need to file in court to preserve his claim until his contractual rights were denied—in this case, when Erie refused to move forward with arbitration on the basis that the SOL had run.
The majority attempts to quell the concerns of the insurance industry that there will now be no clear cut-off for UM claims by suggesting that cases of extraordinary delay may be solved by “equitable principles.” Usually, claimants will gain nothing by delay, and if they do stall unreasonably, the courts can bar their claims on other grounds.
Dissent: I’m fine with the ruling, but this argument was forfeited below
Justice Wecht may be the only dissenter, but he writes with enough fury for the whole Court. A little background: back in May, after oral argument, the Court re-phrased the grant of allocator, with the practical effect of expanding the issue it had originally granted for briefing and argument. It did so over Wecht’s vehement dissent (the Chief Justice’s explanation is here). Justice Wecht argued the matter had been forfeited by Bristol at both the trial court and the Superior Court, where Bristol’s only arguments were that he notified Erie of his intent to pursue a UM claim within the applicable four year time period, and in the alternative, that the four-year SOL was tolled by the filing for arbitration. In other words, he never suggested that the time period had not even begun to run, which was his argument before the Supreme Court.
“I refuse to endorse Bristol’s choose-your-own-adventure litigation strategy,” Wecht explains, arguing it is time “either by rule or by decision—to commit to clear standards for determining whether a particular case warrants departure from our ordinary issue preservation doctrines. Absent such standards, the unpreserved issues that the Court regularly declines to consider will continue to be indistinguishable from those that we idiosyncratically agree to resolve. In my view, such arbitrary and selective enforcement of our Rules of Appellate Procedure is ill-advised.”
Conclusion: Perhaps there’s a corresponding duty of good faith on the part of the insured
The Court’s opinion appears to be correct on the substance, as even the vehement dissent points out. Your SOL begins to run on a breach of contract when the contract has been breached. But unlike most contractual situations, the insured has no real obligations to the insurer after the date of the accident. His obligations are done. He paid his premiums, and the contract was valid on that date.
So how can an insurance company know that the insured is abandoning his UM claim, or is simply sitting on it? Can the insurance company force his hand in any way? Perhaps there is a corresponding duty of good faith and fair dealing owed by the insured to his insurance company that forces him to communicate if asked what he intends to do. Realistically, this opinion leaves the ball in the insured’s court to wait to file or move forward on a claim until he’s ready.