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Shaw v. Botens

decided: November 19, 1968.


McLaughlin, Staley and Van Dusen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Dusen


VAN DUSEN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal seeks reversal of a District Court (1) judgment dated January 16, 1968, for plaintiff against the garnishee (Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company) in the amount of $731.09 (representing interest on $25,000. previously paid by the garnishee on account of plaintiff's June 30, 1966, judgment against defendant of $33,485.08), and (2) order dated December 19, 1967, sustaining objections of the garnishee to most of plaintiff's garnishment claim. Plaintiff contends that she was entitled to proceed in the garnishment action to recover $8,485.08, with interest thereon, in addition to the above $731.09.

After trial of this automobile accident personal injury action, claiming damages under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death and Survival Acts for the death of a passenger, the judgment of June 30, 1966, for plaintiff was entered. The garnishment proceedings were instituted on December 12, 1966. The background facts and the conclusion of the District Court are summarized in the able District Court opinion, Shaw v. Botens, 278 F. Supp. 226 (M.D.Pa.1968), where the following language appears:

"Pursuant to the insurance contract, defendant was represented by counsel of Nationwide's choice who was entrusted with all phases of the case from investigation through the post trial motions. Defendant did not have private counsel. Plaintiff offered to settle for the policy limits of $25,000, but Nationwide refused. After denial of the post trial motions, Nationwide paid plaintiff the $25,000.

"Plaintiff then filed a praecipe for writ of execution against defendant. The writ directed the Marshal to attach the property of the defendant in the possession of Nationwide as garnishee. * * *

"Plaintiff contends that Nationwide breached its duty of fair representation by rejecting plaintiff's offer of settlement thereby subjecting defendant to liability for the deficiency between the judgment and the policy limits; that a claim for the breach lies against an insurer; that the claim is assignable and that the attachment worked an assignment; and that the garnishment and interrogatories under Pennsylvania procedure constitute a pleading which states the cause of action of breach of duty of fair representation. Nationwide contends that there is no debt in the present posture of this lawsuit which is attachable through garnishment; and that in effect plaintiff is attempting to set herself up as a third party beneficiary under the insurance contract, which was not intended by either Nationwide or defendant.

"In Gray v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 1966, 422 Pa. 500, 223 A.2d 8, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court clearly held that an insured has a cause of action in assumpsit against an insurer which subjects the former to liability by virtue of a breach of the fiduciary duty of good faith representation. In Gray, there was an actual assignment to the injured party of the insured's rights against the insurer, which the court held to be a proper assignment. The question presented here is whether under the doctrine of equitable assignment and by means of garnishment proceedings, plaintiff is permitted to pursue the same course without an actual assignment.

"Plaintiff has cited no Pennsylvania authorities for her contention and this court has found none. The question which is basic to all others is whether there existed, either actually or potentially, a right or debt of defendant capable of being enforced by plaintiff. This court believes the answer must be that the claim, if it exists, has not matured to the point where it is enforceable through garnishment proceedings." (278 F. Supp. at 227-28)

This is not a case where the plaintiff is making a mere general contention that the insurer has not acted in good faith and with due care, since the record contains, in affidavit form, the following detailed statement of the plaintiff's principal claim in the execution proceeding:

"4. Upon institution of this action said Insurance Company retained Hugh J. McMenamin, Esquire, to represent both it and the defendant in the action and said attorney did in fact so represent both in the defense of this action;

"5. During the pendency of the primary action and prior to and during the trial thereof offers were made by plaintiff's attorneys to Mr. McMenamin to compromise and settle the same for an amount within the coverage of the said policy;

"6. At all times aforesaid Mr. McMenamin refused said offers and failed or refused to disclose the amount of insurance ...

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