Bifurcation of issues (separate trials) ordered on the morning of trial affirmed on appeal (Calhoun v. Prevence, COA, Pub., 6/22/2012)

Ordering separate trials, aka bifurcation, is a practice often applied in bad faith and underinsured motorist claims (no Coots advance).

In this COA decision, bifurcation was applied in a different context, and I thought the standards outside the usual venue might be useful to know and apply:

528.  TORTS. AUTOMOBILE COLLISION. BIFURCATION.
CALHOUN (MARY B.), ET AL.
VS.
PROVENCE (CHARLES E.), ET AL.
OPINION AFFIRMING
STUMBO (PRESIDING JUDGE)
COMBS (CONCURS) AND KELLER (CONCURS)
2010-CA-001282-MR
2010-CA-001348-MR
TO BE PUBLISHED
LAUREL

STUMBO, JUDGE: Mary C. Calhoun (“Mrs. Calhoun”) and Leslie D. Calhoun (“Mr. Calhoun”) appeal from a Judgment of the Laurel Circuit Court reflecting a jury verdict in favor of Mrs. Calhoun in her action to recover damages arising from an automobile accident. She argues that the trial court erred in bifurcating the trial, failing to grant a directed verdict, failing to grant a new trial on the issue of causation, and prohibiting the introduction of the at-fault driver’s criminal charges. Cross-appellant Legend Motors, d/b/a Legend Suzuki, argues that the court erred in failing to conclude that it did not own the vehicle operated by the at-fault driver, and that the purchaser’s insurer provided primary insurance coverage as a matter of law. We find no error, and accordingly affirm the Judgment on appeal.

The first phase resulted in a directed verdict in favor of the Calhouns against Provence on the issue of liability and an order overruling the Calhouns’ motion for a directed verdict on the issue of whether the accident caused Mrs. Calhoun’s injuries. The jury returned a verdict against Mrs. Calhoun on the issue of comparative negligence and awarded damages as follows: 1) past medical expenses: $1,289.00; 2) past pain and suffering: $600.00; 3) future pain and suffering: none; 4) lost wages: $1,800.00; and 5) vehicle damage: $3,200.00. The jury denied Mr. Calhoun’s claim for loss of consortium and returned a verdict in favor of Provence on Mrs. Calhoun’s claim for punitive damages.

At the close of phase 2, the trial court directed a verdict in favor of Legend Suzuki and Yaden’s Auto Sales on the Calhouns’ claim of negligent entrustment. It denied the motion of Kentucky Auto Exchange for a directed verdict. The matter went before the jury, which returned a verdict in favor of Mrs. Calhoun and against Kentucky Auto Exchange on the issue of negligent entrustment. The jury apportioned liability as follows: 1) Charles E. Provence, II: 48%; 2) Mrs. Calhoun: 10%; and 3) Kentucky Auto Exchange: 42%.

A Judgment was rendered which reflected the verdicts, with credit given for basic reparations benefits payable pursuant to KRS 304.39-060(2)(a). The Calhouns’ motions for a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict and New Trial were overruled, and this appeal followed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS ON THE BIFURCATION ISSUE:

Extensive discovery was conducted and the trial court rendered an Order bifurcating the proceedings. The first phase of the trial was conducted to determine Provence’s liability, if any, as well as Mrs. Calhoun’s comparative negligence and damages. At the second phase, the claims against Legend Suzuki and Yaden’s Auto Sales would be tried. These claims included negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, retention and supervision, and apportionment among all parties.

The first phase resulted in a directed verdict in favor of the Calhouns against Provence on the issue of liability and an order overruling the Calhouns’ motion for a directed verdict on the issue of whether the accident caused Mrs. Calhoun’s injuries. The jury returned a verdict against Mrs. Calhoun on the issue of comparative negligence and awarded damages as follows: 1) past medical expenses: $1,289.00; 2) past pain and suffering: $600.00; 3) future pain and suffering: none; 4) lost wages: $1,800.00; and 5) vehicle damage: $3,200.00. The jury denied Mr. Calhoun’s claim for loss of consortium and returned a verdict in favor of Provence on Mrs. Calhoun’s claim for punitive damages.

At the close of phase 2, the trial court directed a verdict in favor of Legend Suzuki and Yaden’s Auto Sales on the Calhouns’ claim of negligent entrustment. It denied the motion of Kentucky Auto Exchange for a directed verdict. The matter went before the jury, which returned a verdict in favor of Mrs. Calhoun and against Kentucky Auto Exchange on the issue of negligent entrustment. The jury apportioned liability as follows: 1) Charles E. Provence, II: 48%; 2) Mrs. Calhoun: 10%; and 3) Kentucky Auto Exchange: 42%.

A Judgment was rendered which reflected the verdicts, with credit given for basic reparations benefits payable pursuant to KRS 304.39-060(2)(a). The Calhouns’ motions for a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict and New Trial were overruled, and this appeal followed.

The Calhouns first argue that the trial court committed reversible error in bifurcating the proceedings. Directing our attention to CR 42.02, the Calhouns note that a trial court shall order separate trials if it determines that such trials “will be in furtherance of convenience or will avoid prejudice, or will be conducive to expedition and economy[.]” The Calhouns argue that under the facts at bar, a bifurcated proceeding would not be conducive to expedition and economy, and that the trial court did not determine that two trials “will avoid prejudice.” Rather, the Calhouns maintain that in bifurcating the proceeding, the court merely opined the trial would be more efficient and “may” be less potentially prejudicial. Additionally, the Calhouns contend that the court made no indication of what the prejudice would be, nor which party would be prejudiced. In sum, the Calhouns argue that the bifurcation was not supported by the record and the law, that it resulted in conflicting verdicts, and that it was manifestly arbitrary, unfair, unreasonable and not supported by sound legal principles.

We have closely examined the record and the law on this issue, and find no error. CR 42.02 states that,

“[i]f the court determines that separate trials will be in furtherance of convenience or will avoid prejudice, or will be conducive to expedition and economy, it shall order a separate trial of any claim, cross-claim, counterclaim, or third-party claim, or of any separate issue or of any number of claims, cross-claims,counterclaims, third-party claims or issues.”

Accordingly, separate trials shall be conducted if the court determines that they will be in furtherance of convenience or will avoid prejudice, or will be conducive to expedition and economy. In the matter at bar, the trial court stated as its basis for bifurcation its concern that the introduction of Provence’s criminal history and driving record could prejudice the proceedings against the remaining defendants if all of the claims were adjudicated in a single proceeding. In granting the defendants’ motion for bifurcation, the court held that bifurcation 1) would be cleaner, 2) the trial would be more efficient, 3) the proceedings may be less prejudicial and 4), the plaintiffs would not be prejudiced by bifurcation.

We are not persuaded by the Calhouns’ contention that the trial court’s basis for bifurcating the proceeding was unsupported by the law. CR 42.02 not only allows, but requires bifurcation upon the court’s finding that separate trials will be convenient, will avoid prejudice or will be expeditious. It is noteworthy that the language utilized in the civil rule is disjunctive; that is to say, the word “or” rather than “and” is used. To support the conclusion that bifurcation is warranted, the trial court need only determine either that separate trials will be convenient, or will avoid prejudice or will be expeditious and economical. In the matter at bar, the Laurel Circuit Court determined that separate proceedings would be more efficient. This finding, taken alone, is sufficient to support the court’s determination that bifurcation was warranted. As the Calhouns properly acknowledge, a trial court has broad discretion in ruling on a motion to bifurcate. Island Creek Coal Company v. Rodgers, 644 S.W.2d 339 (Ky. App. 1982). Such a decision will be overturned only if it constitutes an abuse of discretion, which is found where the decision is arbitrary, unreasonable, unfair or unsupported by sound legal principles. Commonwealth v. English, 993 S.W.2d 941 (Ky. 1999). We do not conclude that the decision at issue constitutes an abuse of discretion and accordingly find no error on this issue.

The Calhouns also argue that the timing of the bifurcation, the morning of trial, was prejudicial because it required a substantial reorganizing of Appellants’ order of proof. While this court believes that an earlier decision on the bifurcation issue would have been preferable, we cannot say that the trial court abused it wide discretion on the issue.

 

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