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Victory in the Ohio Supreme Court

State courts must bifurcate trials into two phases when there are claims asserted for compensatory and punitive damages in a tort action

By Jennifer R. Becker, Esq.

On February 15, 2012, the Ohio Supreme Court, in Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-552, upheld and found constitutional a 2005 tort reform provision that requires state courts to grant requests for "bifurcation" of trials into two separate stages where claims for compensatory and punitive damages have been asserted in a tort action. This ruling was consistent with the arguments asserted by BSPH attorneys, Bret C. Perry, Jennifer R. Becker and Jason A. Paskan, who represented Defendants in the Havel matter.

Justice Terrence O'Donnell authored the 5-2 opinion and was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Robert R. Cupp. Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor concurred in judgment only. Justice Yvette McGee Brown entered a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

The Ohio Supreme Court held that R.C. 2315.21(B) "creates, defines, and regulates a substantive, enforceable right to separate stages of trial relating to the presentation of evidence for compensatory and punitive damages in tort actions, and therefore takes precedence over Civ.R. 42(B) and does not violate the Ohio Constitution, Article IV, Section 5(B)." This decision reversed a ruling by the Eighth District Court of Appeals that held the challenged statute unconstitutional.

The case involved a lawsuit for medical malpractice, wrongful death, and violation of the Ohio Nursing Home Patients' Bill of Rights brought by Sandra Havel as the personal representative of the Estate of John Havel. The Complaint sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

Pursuant to R.C. 2315.21(B), Defendants moved to bifurcate the trial into two stages. The initial stage would only relate to the presentation of evidence and determination by the jury as to the recovery of compensatory damages. If necessary, the second stage would only involve the presentation of evidence and determination by the jury with respect to the recovery of punitive damages. The trial court denied the motion to bifurcate without stating a reason.

Defendants appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, and the Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. The Eighth District held that R.C. 2315.21(B) is unconstitutional because it conflicts with Civ.R. 42(B), in violation of the separation of powers required by the Ohio Constitution, Article IV, Section 5(B), by intending "to legislate a strictly procedural matter already addressed by the Civil Rules."

The Eighth District certified that its decision was in conflict with a 2009 decision of the Tenth District Court of Appeals, Hanners v. Ho Wah Genting Wire & Cable, 10th Dist. No. 09AP-361, 2009-Ohio-6481, in which that court upheld R.C. 2315.21(B) as constitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to resolve the conflict between Appellate Districts.

The Ohio Supreme Court noted several statements made by the General Assembly in the uncodified language of S.B. 80 and stated that, "These findings and statements by the General Assembly demonstrate its intent to create a substantive right to ensure that evidence of misconduct is not inappropriately considered by the jury in its assessment of liability and its award of compensatory damages."

The Ohio Supreme Court also explained that: "...R.C. 2315.21(B) does more than set forth the procedure for the bifurcation of tort actions: it makes bifurcation mandatory. ... By eliminating judicial discretion, R.C. 2315.21(B) creates a concomitant right to bifurcation: because the court cannot deny a request for bifurcation under the specified circumstances, the statute turns a request into a demand for or an entitlement to bifurcation by controlling the outcome. We have previously recognized that a statute may create a right when it contains mandatory language and restricts judicial or agency discretion."

The Ohio Supreme Court held that R.C. 2315.21(B) does not violate the Ohio Constitution, Article IV, Section 5(B) and is constitutional because it is a substantive law that prevails over a procedural rule. Thus, when requested, bifurcation is mandatory and trial courts must have two separate stages of trial where claims for compensatory and punitive damages have been asserted in a tort action.