Robert McKennon and Scott Calvert Publish Article: Insurers turn to Drones

In the October 18, 2016 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, Robert McKennon and Scott Calvert of the McKennon Law Group published an article regarding the use of drones by insurance companies in their insurance claims investigations.  In the article entitled “Insurers Turn to Drones,” Mr. McKennon and Mr. Calvert explained that insurers are increasingly using drones as part of the insurance claims handling/investigation process, including disability insurance claims, but noted the use of drones is regulated by a series of Federal, State and local laws.  In addition, the article noted that courts are increasingly questioning the use of and reliance on surveillance by insurance companies in ERISA and non-ERISA insurance cases.

The article is posted below with the permission of the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Insurers Turn to Drones

By Robert J. McKennon and Scott E. Calvert

Insurance companies have the right, and indeed the duty, to thoroughly investigate claims. In California, an insurer’s failure to reasonably investigate an insurance claim may result in bad faith liability. See Egan v. Mutual of Omaha Ins. Co., 24 Cal. 3d 809, 819 (1979); Guebara v. Allstate Ins. Co., 237 F.3d 987, 996 (9th Cir. 2001).

In the process of those investigations, insurers often secretly enlist private investigators to gather information on their insureds. With respect to disability insurance claims, for example, insurers typically hire private investigators to follow and videotape their insureds whenever they ventured out of the home, whether to take the trash out, go to a doctor’s office, or travel to the grocery store. Typically, insurers will attempt to use that surveillance to assert that their insureds are capable of working and not entitled to disability benefits, often overstating the level of activity depicted on tape and the conclusions that can be drawn from such surveillance.

However, with technological advances, the methods of surveillance are changing. Recently, insurance companies started moving beyond the proverbial “guy in a van” method of surveillance, and began using unmanned drones to conduct photographic and video surveillance. There are many different kinds of drones, but some can travel on auto-pilot to a preset location, and slowly fly above an insured and his property, undetected, while taking high-resolution photos and video. Others need to be operated by someone who keeps the aerial vehicle within the line of sight.

Drones, also referred to as unmanned aerial systems (UASs) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are increasingly being used for commercial purposes. The use of drones is regulated both by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and a variety of state and local laws and regulations. Those regulations have not prevented insurance companies from making drones part of the claim review process. In 2015, multiple insurance companies, including AIG, State Farm Mutual and USAA, were granted permission by the FAA to use drones for commercial purposes. More recently, in July, the FAA promulgated rules permitting the use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds for all commercial applications, including by insurance companies.

Most often, drones are used for claims involving property and casualty insurance, to examine the condition of tall buildings or inspect property in hard-to-reach locations or even disaster areas. However, the neither the FAA nor any other authority strictly limits the use of drones to these specific situations.

Some private investigators believe that drones are preferable to more traditional methods of surveillance, as they can often provide quicker, cheaper and safer surveillance and documentation while also reducing the risk than an investigator will be spotted, and can be used to gain access to otherwise inaccessible locations.

With FAA approval, insurers are working to research and develop best practices, safety and privacy protocols, and procedures as they further develop plans for operational use. Privacy protocols will be especially important as insurers can be sued if they obtain surveillance that impermissibly intrudes on an insured’s privacy. Thus, even with FAA approval to utilize drones, insurance companies are not simply permitted to use drones in every situation in order to attempt to assert that an insured does not qualify for benefits. They will have to be prudent using them.

As drones multiply in number and category, cities and states are setting their own boundaries. For example, while over the last two years Gov. Jerry Brown repeatedly vetoed bills that would have criminalized the use of drones in certain situations, including over wildfires, schools, prisons and jails, he did sign a law modifying California Civil Code Section 1708.8 so that the definition of a “physical invasion of privacy” now includes sending a drone into the airspace above someone’s land in order to make a recording or take a photo. A person who violates the “airspace above the land of another person” is now liable for up to three times the amount of any general and special damages caused by the invasion, as well as a civil fine between $5,000 and $50,000. While this change was developed mainly to prevent paparazzi from flying drones over private property, it would equally apply to insurance company employees and contractors conducting surveillance of insureds.

Florida has gone a step further, as the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act provides a private right of action which can be pursued when a drone is used to take pictures or video that would not be otherwise available to someone standing on ground level. Cities are also passing similar laws. For example in 2015, Poway, in San Diego County, passed an ordinance banning the use of drones in any open space or rural residential area.

In light of these rules, in any case involving photographs or videos taken by drone, attorneys on either side of litigation involving such evidence are well-advised to ensure that the evidence was gathered within the confines of the law.

While insurers often use the results of surveillance to assert that an insured does not qualify for insurance benefits, courts are increasingly weary of how insurance companies use and interpret video footage. For example, in one influential 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case involving a long-term disability insurance claim, Montour v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co., 588 F.3d 623 (9th Cir. Cal. 2009), the insurer relied on surveillance footage of the claimant engaged in short periods of activity over four nonconsecutive days and concluded he was capable of sustaining this activity in a full-time occupation. The court criticized the insurer’s decision, explaining the insurer over-relied on footage and this bias pervaded its decision process, eventually ruling that the claimant was entitled to long-term disability benefits.

Similarly, in Beaty v. Prudential Insurance Co., 313 Fed. Appx. 46, 49 (9th Cir. 2009), the 9th Circuit rejected the insurer’s attempt to rely on “unsupportable inferences from a surveillance video and reports which show the plaintiff engaging in a variety of normal day-to-day activities” and criticized the insurer’s failure to explain how activities show “she can perform the duties of her occupation.”

Other courts have likewise ruled that an overstatement of a claimant’s activities in surveillance is improper, and warn that activities observed for a short amount of time do not necessarily translate into full-time work capacity. For example, in Thivierge v. Hartford Life, 2006 WL 823751, *11 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 28, 2006), the district court held that activities observed “for a couple of hours on five out of six days she was under surveillance does not mean that Plaintiff is able to work an eight-hour a day job.”

Thus, while insurers increasingly use drones to gather information on their claimants, gathering and using that information to support claims denials may not be as easy as it seems. This is especially true in the case of disability insurance claims. Not only are insurers obligated to obey an increasingly number of federal, state and local rules and regulations limiting the use of drones, but courts are growing increasingly weary of insurers’ attempts to over-rely on surveillance. Thus, while surveillance, especially the use of drones, becomes increasingly popular in insurance investigations, insurers will have to be especially wary of its use in making decisions on their insurance claims.

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