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Court Upholds Law Mandating Bifurcated Trials When Tort Claims Seek Both Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Denies Constitutional Challenge Based on Alleged Conflict With Judicial Rule

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2010-2148.  Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-552.
Cuyahoga App. No. 94677, 2010-Ohio-5251. Judgment of the court of appeals reversed.
Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
O'Connor, C.J., concurs in judgment only.
Pfeifer and McGee Brown, JJ., dissent.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-552.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(Feb. 15, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio today upheld as constitutional a 2005 tort reform provision that requires state courts hearing tort (civil) lawsuits to grant  requests for “bifurcation” of trials into two separate stages where claims for compensatory and punitive damages have been asserted.

In a 5-2 majority opinion authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the 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).”

The decision reversed a ruling by the 8th District Court of Appeals that held the challenged statute unconstitutional.

The case involved a suit 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, against the Villa St. Joseph and Village of Marymount nursing homes. The complaint alleged that, while he was recuperating from hip surgery at Villa St. Joseph, John Havel developed skin ulcers that required surgery, contracted a bacterial infection of the ulcers following that surgery, and died several months later as a result of complications from the infection. Havel’s complaint sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

The defendants moved to bifurcate the trial into two stages pursuant to R.C. 2315.21(B): an initial stage relating only to the presentation of evidence and determination by the jury as to the recovery of compensatory damages, and, if necessary, a second stage involving 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. 

Villa St. Joseph appealed to the 8th District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the judgment of the trial court.  The appellate court 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 purporting “to legislate a strictly procedural matter already addressed by the Civil Rules.” The court of appeals further determined that R.C. 2315.21(B) did not grant a right, but rather “specifies ‘the machinery for carrying on the suit’ by telling courts ‘the procedural prioritization’ for determining compensatory and punitive damages at trial.”

The 8th District certified that its decision in this case was in conflict with a 2009 decision of the 10th District Court of Appeals, Hanners v. Ho Wah Genting Wire & Cable, in which that court upheld R.C. 2315.21(B) as constitutional. The Supreme Court agreed to resolve the conflict between appellate districts.

Writing for the Court in today’s decision, Justice O’Donnell noted 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.” 

Citing prior court decisions including this Court’s 2006 holding in State ex rel. Loyd v. Lovelady, Justice O’Donnell wrote that when the language of a statute does not plainly indicate whether the legislature intended it to be substantive or procedural,it is appropriate for courts to look to uncodified language enacted by the legislature, if any, to determine intent. In this case, he wrote, “(T)he statements made by the General Assembly in the uncodified language of S.B. 80 compel the conclusion that although R.C. 2315.21(B) may be ‘packaged in procedural wrapping,’ it is a substantive law because it creates a right to ‘address potential injustice.’”

“ ... In its statement the General Assembly asserted, ‘The current civil litigation system represents a challenge to the economy of the state of Ohio’ and recognized that ‘a fair system of civil justice strikes an essential balance between the rights of those who have been legitimately harmed and the rights of those who have been unfairly sued.’ ... The General Assembly further declared that ‘[r]eform to the punitive damages law in Ohio [was] urgently needed to restore balance, fairness, and predictability to the civil justice system.’”

 “The uncodified language of the statute also distinguishes noneconomic damages, which ‘are intended to compensate a person for the person’s loss,’ from punitive damages, which ‘are intended to punish a defendant for wrongful conduct.’ ... Among its findings, the General Assembly explained: ... ‘In cases in which punitive damages are requested, defendants should have the right to request bifurcation of a trial to ensure that evidence of misconduct is not inappropriately considered by the jury in its determination of liability and compensatory damages. As additional protection, trial and appellate courts should rigorously review pain and suffering awards to ensure that they properly serve compensatory purposes and are not excessive.’”

“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.”


“Contrary to the unsupported contention of the dissent, R.C. 2315.21(B) is not a procedural statute because it pertains to a procedural issue: as noted in Lovelady, which the dissent references but does not distinguish, a statute may create a substantive right despite being ‘packaged in procedural wrapping.’  ... Accordingly, 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.”
Justice O’Donnell’s opinion 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, in which she disagreed with the majority’s reliance on legislative “findings and statements” included in the uncodified language of S.B. 80, which she said unconstitutionally invades the exclusive authority of the Supreme Court to set procedural rules for the conduct of trials.
Justice McGee Brown wrote: “Bifurcation is a classic courtroom procedural issue. A motion for bifurcation involves a question of how best to manage the competing interests of efficiency and prejudice in the courtroom, and we have determined that judges are best situated to answer that question. See Civ.R. 42(B). Indeed, in some cases judges may find bifurcation wasteful or unfair, and our rule recognizes the discretion of judges to manage their cases with an eye toward those practical and important considerations. The conflict here is undeniable: whereas Civ.R. 42(B) gives discretion over bifurcation motions to judges, R.C. 2315.21(B) takes that discretion away and allows parties to demand bifurcation, even if the judge determines that bifurcation will not serve the efficiency or fairness of the proceedings.”

“The statute is not about a substantive right; it is about court procedure. The Ohio Constitution vests this court with responsibility to superintend Ohio’s courts. I would follow our jurisprudence and hold that trial courts, not the legislators, are best situated to determine when bifurcation is appropriate. In so holding, we would protect the independence of Ohio’s judiciary and its rightful role to determine how trials should proceed.”

Contacts
Bret C. Perry, 216.875.2767, for Villa St. Joseph et al.

Blake A. Dickson, 216.595.6500, for Sandra Havel & Estate of John Havel.