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Hughes v. First Acceptance Insurance Co. of Georgia, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

November 2, 2017

HUGHES
v.
FIRST ACCEPTANCE INSURANCE COMPANY OF GEORGIA, INC.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          McFadden, Presiding Judge.

         This case involves allegations that the defendant insurer is liable for failing to settle an insurance claim. The trial court denied summary judgment to the plaintiff and granted summary judgment to the defendant on all claims, including those for attorney fees and punitive damages. There are genuine issues of material fact as to the failure-to-settle claim, so the trial court correctly denied summary judgment to the plaintiff, but erroneously granted summary judgment to the defendant. But because the plaintiff has pointed to no evidence of bad faith or wilful or wanton conduct which would support the claims for attorney fees and punitive damages, the trial court properly granted summary judgment on those claims. So we affirm in part and reverse in part.

         1. Facts and procedural posture.

Summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. We review the grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment de novo, and we must view the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.

Johnson Street Properties v. Clure, ___ Ga. ___ (1) (___ S.E.2d ___) (Case Nos. S17A0811, S17X0812, decided September 13, 2017) (citations and punctuation omitted).

         So viewed, the evidence shows that on August 29, 2008, Ronald Jackson caused a five-vehicle collision that resulted in his death and injured others, including Julie An and her minor child, Jina Hong, who sustained a traumatic brain injury. Jackson was insured by First Acceptance Insurance Company of Georgia, Inc. The liability limits of that policy are $25, 000 per person and $50, 000 per accident. On September 10, 2008, counsel for An and Hong contacted First Acceptance and stated, in part, that he looked forward to working with the insurer to resolve the matter and that he would forward a settlement demand when his clients had finished treatment for their injuries. Thereafter, on January 15, 2009, counsel for First Acceptance sent a letter to attorneys for all of the injured parties, including counsel for An and Hong, seeking to schedule a settlement conference with all parties. On February 2, 2009, counsel for First Acceptance sent another letter to all of the parties requesting participation in a settlement conference.

         On June 2, 2009, the attorney for An and Hong sent two letters by facsimile to the attorney for First Acceptance. Forty-one days later, counsel for An and Hong would assert that those two June 2, 2009 letters had constituted an offer to settle their claims and had set a 30-day deadline for a response. The first faxed letter of June 2, 2009, acknowledged the earlier communication from First Acceptance's counsel expressing the company's interest in arranging a settlement conference and stated that An and Hong were "interested in having their claims resolved within your insured's policy limits, and in attending a settlement conference[.]" The first letter then expressly referenced the attached second letter, stating "I have attached my letter of representation and insurance information request for your use." The first letter also informed First Acceptance that An and Hong had uninsured/underinsured motorist ("UM") coverage in the amounts of $100, 000 per person and $300, 000 per accident. The first letter then provided:

Of course, the exact amount of UM benefits available to my clients depends upon the amount paid to them from the available liability coverage. Once that is determined, a release of your insured from all personal liability except to the extent other insurance coverage is available will be necessary in order to preserve my clients' rights to recover under the UM coverage and any other insurance policies. In fact, if you would rather settle within your insured's policy limits now, you can do that by providing that release document with all the insurance information as requested in the attached, along with your insured's available bodily injury liability insurance proceeds.

         The second letter of June 2, 2009, as expressly referenced by the first letter, requested that First Acceptance provide the insurance information within 30 days, including a corporate officer's statement under oath concerning policy and coverage details and a copy of each known policy. That second letter further stated that "[a]ny settlement will be conditioned upon [the] receipt of all the requested insurance information."

         Counsel for First Acceptance received and reviewed the faxed letters from An and Hong's attorney. On July 10, 2009, counsel for An and Hong filed a personal injury action against the estate of Jackson. On July 13, 2009, counsel for An and Hong sent another letter by facsimile to counsel for First Acceptance, stating that the offer to settle in the June 2, 2009 letters was withdrawn.

I have not heard from you in response to my letter dated June 2, 2009, when I wrote to you about my clients' interest in resolving their claims within the policy limits of First Acceptance's insured. As you know from my letter, my clients offered to release the insured from all personal liability if I received within 30 days: 1) the described release, 2) a check for the available bodily injury liability insurance proceeds, and 3) the requested insurance information. . . . It has now been 41 days since my letter, and I have received nothing from you or First Acceptance. . . . Under the circumstances, my clients authorized me to file a lawsuit on their behalf. . . . Please advise your client that the offer to settle my clients' claims has been revoked and we will move forward with litigation.

         On July 17, 2009, counsel for First Acceptance sent a letter by facsimile to First Acceptance, stating that the June 2, 2009 letters from counsel for An and Hong "had been inadvertently placed with some medical records and no follow-up had occurred." On July 20, 2009, counsel for First Acceptance responded to counsel for An and Hong, informing him that a settlement conference with all potential claimants would be scheduled within two weeks. On July 30, 2009, counsel for First Acceptance sent notice to the parties that a settlement conference had been scheduled for September 1, 2009. Counsel for An and Hong did not participate in the settlement conference.

         On January 18, 2010, First Acceptance offered to settle Hong's claims for $25, 000, but counsel for Hong rejected the offer. First Acceptance later offered to settle both An and Hong's claims for $50, 000, but counsel for An and Hong rejected that offer on October 1, 2010. The lawsuit then proceeded to a jury trial in July 2012, after which final ...


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