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Blankenship v. Jordan

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

September 3, 2019

GINNY BLANKENSHIP, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW JORDAN, an individual and ALLSTATE PROPERTY AND CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, an insurance company, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance Company's (“Allstate”) Motion to Bifurcate and Stay trial and discovery of Plaintiff's claims arising under the West Virginia Unfair Trade Practices Act, W.Va. Code § 33-11-4(9). See Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, ECF. No. 9. Plaintiff timely filed a Response in opposition to Defendant Allstate's Motion to Bifurcate and Stay discovery, though stipulating to separate trials. See Pl.'s Resp. to Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, ECF No. 12. In consideration of this stipulation, the portion of Defendant Allstate's Motion addressing separate trials is GRANTED. However, Defendant Allstate's Motion to Bifurcate and Stay discovery is DENIED for the reasons explained below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 12, 2018, Plaintiff Ginny Blankenship and Defendant Andrew Jordan (“Jordan”) were involved in an automobile collision while traveling west on Route 34 in Putnam County, West Virginia. Compl., ECF No. 1-1, at 2. Plaintiff sustained significant injuries in the collision, and subsequently recovered the $25, 000 policy limit of Defendant Jordan's liability insurance on January 29, 2019. See Ex. 2, ECF No. 12-2. Two days later, Plaintiff advised her own insurance carrier-Defendant Allstate-of her settlement with Defendant Jordan's insurer. Ex. 3, ECF No. 12-3, at 1-2. Plaintiff demanded her policy limit of $25, 000 in underinsured motorist coverage. Ex. 4, ECF No. 12-4, at 1-3. Defendant Allstate denied Plaintiff's demand for payment, concluding that “she was made whole by the tort carrier's settlement.” Ex. 5, ECF No. 12-5.

         Plaintiff subsequently filed suit against Defendants Jordan and Allstate in the Circuit Court of Putnam County. See Compl., at 1. In Count I of her Complaint, Plaintiff asserted negligence claims against Defendant Jordan. Id. at 2-3. In Count II, Plaintiff raised claims of unfair settlement practices and bad faith arising under the West Virginia Unfair Trade Practices Act against Defendant Allstate. Id. at 3-5. On May 1, 2019, the Circuit Court dismissed Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Jordan pursuant to an earlier settlement agreement with Jordan and his insurance carrier. Partial Dismissal Order, ECF No. 1-1, at 1. The court nevertheless permitted the case against Defendant Jordan to “proceed . . . in name only so that Plaintiff [could] pursue underinsured motorist claim(s) for the accident . . . .” Id. Defendant Allstate subsequently elected to defend Count I of Plaintiff's Complaint. Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, at 1. On May 10, 2019, Defendant Allstate timely removed the case to this Court. See Def.'s Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1.

         On July 11, 2019, Defendant Allstate filed a Motion to Bifurcate and Stay Count II of Plaintiff's Complaint “for discovery and trial.” Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, at 1. In her Response filed on July 19, 2019, Plaintiff stipulated to separate trials on Counts I and II of her Complaint. See Pl.'s Resp. to Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, at 1. As there is no remaining dispute with respect to bifurcating trial proceedings, this portion of Defendant Allstate's Motion is granted. The Court will address the parties' remaining arguments over discovery below.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may bifurcate an action “[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b). Courts have wide discretion in determining whether to bifurcate and stay discovery with respect to certain claims or causes of action. See Syl. Pt. 3, Light v. Allstate Ins. Co., 506 S.E.2d 64, 65 ( W.Va. 1998) (“Trial courts have discretion in determining whether to stay discovery in a first-party bad faith claim against an insurer . . . .”).

         Even where a court has bifurcated and stayed a particular claim for trial-as this Court has ordered with respect to Count II of Plaintiff's Complaint-it may still decline to order bifurcation of discovery. Id. at 75. Indeed, while “bifurcation is not unusual, it is the exception rather than the rule.” Sheppard v. Direct Gen. Ins. Co., No. 3:16-11418, 2017 WL 11249431, at *1 (S.D. W.Va. June 19, 2017) (quoting Dallas v. Goldberg, 143 F.Supp.2d 312, 315 (S.D.N.Y. 2001)). The party seeking to bifurcate and stay discovery assumes the burden of proof on the issue. Light, 506 S.E.2d at 72.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendant Allstate advances two arguments in favor of bifurcating and staying discovery: first, that West Virginia Code § 33-6-1(d) would be rendered meaningless if unitary discovery is permitted, and in the alternative, that the factors enunciated by the West Virginia Supreme Court in Light v. Allstate Insurance Company, 506 S.E.2d at 72, weigh in its favor. The Court disagrees with both arguments.

         A. W.Va. Code § 33-6-31(d)

         First, Defendant Allstate argues that “[t]he factors discussed in Light that favored combined discovery there simply do not apply in this case.” Mem. in Support of Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, ECF No. 10, at 12. Defendant Allstate bases its argument on West Virginia Code § 33-6-1(d), which it contends precludes a court from forcing an insurer to “submit to discovery regarding its defense while . . . underlying claims are still being litigated.” Id. at 14. Defendant Allstate suggests that “[a]llowing discovery of the insurer's claim file under such circumstances will allow a claimant to obtain information regarding the insurer's evaluation of the claim, and anticipated defenses and strategies which would never be subject to discovery if a liability ...


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