Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Appellate Division discusses wiggle room for attorney's fees in PIP cases

Although the PIP statute allows attorney's fees in cases against a PIP insurer, such fees may only be awarded if a judgment is recovered from the insurer on the PIP claim. That rule has been generally understood to mean that an insurer can avoid attorney's fees by paying the disputed amount at any time, even after trial has begun. (Of course, attorney's fees can still be awarded on a 93A claim, but a violation of 93A is much harder to prove.)

In Metro West Medical Assocs., Inc. v. Amica Mut. Ins. Co., 2010 WL 3118636 (Mass. App. Div.), the Appellate Division discussed wiggle room for attorney's fees in a PIP claim.

Metro West alleged that it provided medical services to Cuevos, who was entitled to PIP benefits from Amica. Amica paid some of the bills but rejected the additional bills on the grounds that the services were unreasonable and unnecessary. A few weeks later Amica sent a check for the amount it had originally rejected. Metro West's attorney returned the check and demanded payment for attorney's fees under the PIP statute.

The court stated that it would not be inconsistent with prior case law "to require that the insurer on the § 34M [PIP] claim show more on summary judgment than simply that the bills have all been paid. It should also have to show that there is no genuine issue of fact concerning whether it had a valid reason not to pay, and that it paid an invalid claim for reasons unrelated to its merits, for example, to avoid the cost of litigation or to remove a potential liability off its books."

The court held open the possibility that an insured could reject a tender of late payment from an insurer. "In this light, a check for the balance of bills could be viewed as an offer of settlement, which could be rejected, and not a tender of full payment."

The court granted summary judgment to Amica. Amica had submitted an affidavit in which its claim supervisor averred that the disputed bills were not reasonable and necessary and that Amica paid them as a result of a business decision. "That was sufficient, albeit without a lot to spare" to shift the burden to Metro West to show that there would be a genuine issue at trial concerning the necessity of the services and the reasonableness of the bill." Metro West failed to do so.

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