763 N.E.2d 299 (Ill. 2001), 90226, Haddick ex rel. Griffith v. Valor Insurance

Docket Nº:90226.
Citation:763 N.E.2d 299, 198 Ill.2d 409, 261 Ill.Dec. 329
Party Name:Ella HADDICK, Special Adm'r of the Estate of James GRIFFITH, Appellee, v. VALOR INSURANCE, Appellant.
Case Date:November 21, 2001
Court:Supreme Court of Illinois

Page 299

763 N.E.2d 299 (Ill. 2001)

198 Ill.2d 409, 261 Ill.Dec. 329

Ella HADDICK, Special Adm'r of the Estate of James GRIFFITH, Appellee,

v.

VALOR INSURANCE, Appellant.

No. 90226.

Supreme Court of Illinois

November 21, 2001.

Rehearing Denied Feb. 4, 2002.

Page 300

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 301

James P. Newman and James P. Pelafas, of Newman & Pelafas, Chicago, for appellant.

Goldfine & Bowles, P.C., Peoria (William K. Brown, of counsel), for appellee.

Richard L. Rumsey, Ltd., Chicago (Barry G. Doyle, of counsel), for amicus curiae Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

OPINION

GARMAN, Justice.

The issue in this case is at what point in time does an insurance provider's duty to settle arise. Plaintiff, Ella Haddick, as the special administrator of the estate of James Griffith, filed a single-count complaint against defendant, Valor Insurance, alleging that defendant acted in bad faith by failing to settle a claim against its policyholder within the policy limits. The trial court granted defendant's section 2-615 motion to dismiss the complaint and the appellate court reversed. We consider all well-pleaded facts contained in the allegations of the complaint and the exhibits attached thereto.

BACKGROUND

On May 6, 1996, James Griffith and Larry Woodley, Jr., were involved in a single-car accident, which resulted in Griffith's death. According to the police report, Woodley owned the vehicle and was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. Shortly after the accident, the men were transported to separate hospitals. The reporting officer attempted to speak with Woodley at the hospital, but he was unresponsive. At the request of the officer, an emergency room doctor woke Woodley to ask who was driving the vehicle. Woodley responded that he was driving. After detecting an odor of alcohol, the officer issued Woodley a ticket for driving under the influence. On May 13, 1996, Woodley informed the same officer that he did not remember the accident and did not know who had been driving the vehicle.

Woodley had liability coverage through defendant of $20,000 per person. On August 13, 1996, the attorney for the decedent's estate wrote defendant, informing the insurer that the decedent had incurred medical bills [198 Ill.2d 412] totaling $82,544.80 as a result of the accident. After the attorney made a demand for settlement, defendant responded by letter dated August 22, 1996, that it would discuss settlement after it received a copy of the police report. On November 1, 1996, defendant wrote to the attorney acknowledging receipt of the police report and indicating that an investigation was still pending to ascertain the actual driver of the vehicle. According to defendant, Woodley was still unable to recall the accident; therefore, upon completion of the police investigation, defendant would determine its position and a possible resolution of the claim.

On March 7, 1997, plaintiff, decedent's mother, was named as the special administrator of his estate. By letter of the same

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date, she presented to defendant her claim against Woodley for wrongful death. Plaintiff demanded that defendant settle the claim for the policy limits within 14 days of receipt of the letter, otherwise she would "no longer settle [the] claim within the policy limits." Defendant responded that the settlement demand was premature and that it was still investigating to determine who was driving the vehicle. Plaintiff subsequently extended the settlement deadline to April 7, 1997. When defendant did not offer to settle by the requested plaintiff informed defendant by letter dated April 9, 1997, that she had filed a wrongful death suit and had "no intention of settling the case at this time."

Approximately one year later, defendant offered to settle the case for the policy limits. Plaintiff refused this offer. The trial court entered summary judgment in plaintiff's favor on the issue of liability and, after trial, entered a judgment in the amount of $150,924.80.

Following the judgment, Woodley assigned all claims against his insurer to plaintiff, who then filed the present action. Plaintiff alleged that defendant acted in bad [198 Ill.2d 413] faith by failing to settle her claim against Woodley within the policy limits. Pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1998)), the trial court dismissed the complaint, finding that defendant had no duty under Illinois law to settle the claim prior to suit being filed and that plaintiff could not maintain a bad-faith claim once she withdrew her policy demand.

On review, the appellate court reversed. Citing Cernocky v. Indemnity Insurance Co. of North America, 69 Ill.App.2d 196, 207-08, 216 N.E.2d 198 (1966), the court concluded that the duty to settle is created by the "conception of the insurance contract" (315 Ill.App.3d 752, 756, 248 Ill.Dec. 812, 735 N.E.2d 132) because the policyholder relinquishes his right to negotiate settlement on his own behalf when he enters into the contract. "Thus, the same threat exists to the policyholder that the insurer will wrongly refuse to settle within the policy limits and a judgment will be entered against him in excess of the policy whether the third party attempted to negotiate a settlement prior to or after filing suit." 315 Ill.App.3d at 757, 248 Ill.Dec. 812, 735 N.E.2d 132. Further, noting that many insurance contracts specifically provide for a duty to settle both before and after a suit is filed, the court opined that if it affirmed the trial court's blanket holding, "such a ruling could retroactively limit the duties of an insurer to a policyholder, which were bargained for in the insurance contract." 315 Ill.App.3d at 757, 248 Ill.Dec. 812, 735 N.E.2d 132. Finally, the court held that plaintiff could maintain her cause of action for bad faith even though she revoked her offer to settle within the policy limits. 315 Ill.App.3d at 759, 248 Ill.Dec. 812, 735 N.E.2d 132.

We granted defendant's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill.2d R. 315(a)) and allowed the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association to file an amicus curiae brief in support of plaintiff (155 Ill.2d R. 345).

ANALYSIS

A section 2-615 motion to dismiss challenges the [198 Ill.2d 414] legal sufficiency of a complaint. Upon review, all well-pleaded facts in the complaint are taken as true. Facts apparent from the face of the pleadings, including the exhibits attached thereto, may be considered. Weatherman v. Gary-Wheaton Bank of Fox Valley, N.A., 186 Ill.2d 472, 491-92, 239 Ill.Dec. 12, 713 N.E.2d 543 (1999). The reviewing court determines whether the allegations of the complaint, when interpreted in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, are sufficient

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to establish a cause of action upon which relief can be granted. A cause of action will not be dismissed unless it is clear that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts entitling her to relief. Board of Directors of Bloomfield Club Recreation Ass'n v. Hoffman Group, Inc., 186 Ill.2d 419, 424, 238 Ill.Dec. 608, 712 N.E.2d 330 (1999). We review a dismissal pursuant to section 2-615 de novo. Neade v. Portes, 193 Ill.2d 433, 439, 250 Ill.Dec. 733, 739 N.E.2d 496 (2000).

This court has recognized that an insurance provider has a duty to act in good faith in responding to settlement offers. Cramer v. Insurance Exchange Agency, 174 Ill.2d 513, 526, 221 Ill.Dec. 473, 675 N.E.2d 897 (1996), citing Krutsinger v. Illinois Casualty Co., 10 Ill.2d 518, 527, 141 N.E.2d 16 (1957). If the insurer breaches this duty, it may be liable for the entire judgment against its insured, including any amount in excess of policy limits. Cramer, 174 Ill.2d at 526, 221 Ill.Dec. 473, 675 N.E.2d 897; Mid-America Bank & Trust Co. v. Commercial Union Insurance Co., 224 Ill.App.3d 1083, 1087, 167 Ill.Dec. 199, 587 N.E.2d 81 (1992); 14 Couch on Insurance § 203:12 (3d rev. ed. 1999).

An insurer derives the authority to engage in settlement negotiations from the language of the insurance contract. Generally, such language gives the insurer the right to "make such investigation, negotiation, and settlement of any claim or suit as it deems expedient." 14 Couch § 203:7. Therefore, the basis for the duty to settle is the insurer's exclusive control over settlement negotiations and defense of litigation. See Cernocky, 69 Ill.App.2d at 207, 216 N.E.2d 198; see also Cramer, 174 Ill.2d at 526, 221 Ill.Dec. 473, 675 N.E.2d 897 (policyholder relinquishes defense of suit); 14 [198 Ill.2d 415] Couch § 203:13 (insurer controls settlement negotiations). This exclusive control, however, necessarily results in a conflict of interest between the insurance provider and its insured. We explained in Cramer that:

"In the typical 'duty to settle' case, the third party has sued the policyholder for an amount in excess of the policy limits but has offered to settle the claim against the policyholder for an amount equal to or less than those policy limits.

In this circumstance,...

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