Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Law Requiring Bifurcation of Compensatory and Punitive Damages for Tort Claims

The Supreme Court of Ohio recently issued its decision in Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-552, which upheld a provision of Ohio’s tort reform (Ohio Rev. Code § 2315.21(B)) that requires state courts to grant requests for bifurcation of trials. Bifurcation means that claims for compensatory damages and claims for punitive damages are separated into two separate actions. Ohio Rev. Code § 2315.21(B) provides that upon the motion of any party in a tort action in which compensatory and punitive damages are made, the trial shall be bifurcated. Meanwhile, Ohio Civ. R. P. 42(B) vests trial courts with discretion to order a separate trial of any claim when doing so would promote convenience, avoid prejudice, or when it would be economically prudent. The statute and the civil rule certainly conflict as the statute requires a trial court to bifurcate upon request and the civil rule leaves bifurcation to the judge’s discretion. The Supreme Court determined that Ohio Rev. Code § 2315.21(B) prevails over Ohio Civ. R. P. 42(B).
In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court resolved a conflict among the appellate districts in Ohio. The Eighth District Court of Appeals determined that Ohio Rev. Code § 2315.21(B) was unconstitutional while the Tenth District Court of Appeals held the statute was constitutional.
The importance of the Supreme Court’s decision as it relates to employment matters is not obvious; however, the Eighth District Court of Appeals recently made it clear in Luri v. Republic Services, et al., 2011-Ohio-2389, that discrimination and retaliation claims are, in fact, tort actions. As such, Ohio Rev. Code § 2315.21(B) will apply to actions in state courts involving claims of discrimination if both compensatory and punitive damages are claimed. Upon request, courts must separate the stages of trial relating to the presentation of evidence for compensatory and punitive damages. Luri involved a retaliation claim where the jury awarded $46.6 million to the plaintiff that included $43.1 million in punitive damages. Ironically, Luri is pending before the Supreme Court of Ohio but was stayed pending the decision in Havel because the employer requested bifurcation and the trial court denied the request.
The practical effect of separating compensatory and punitive damages means that it will be more difficult for plaintiffs to recover punitive damages. Additionally, the separation is likely to lead to less juror confusion as to when punitive damages are warranted, especially in employment discrimination cases where the fact that discrimination occurred does not satisfy the standard for awarding punitive damages.

Contact: Jon Secrest

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