A Cuyahoga County trial court’s decision to vacate a jury verdict and order a new trial for failure to bifurcate the issue of punitive damages was affirmed last week. In Luri v. Republic Services, Inc. et al., Plaintiff was awarded significant compensatory and punitive damages where evidence of wealth and jury instructions on both types of damages were presented in a single trial. The Eighth District Court of Appeal’s opinion reinforces the Supreme Court of Ohio’s holding in Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, 131 Ohio St.3d 235, 2012-Ohio-552, 963 N.E.2d 1270, that bifurcation, as outlined in Ohio Revised Code 2315.21(B), creates a substantive right and takes precedence over the discretionary bifurcation provision in Ohio Civil Rule 42(B). When a party in a tort action moves to bifurcate the punitive damages issue pursuant to R.C. 2315.21(B), the trial court has no discretion to deny the motion.
A new trial is not always required however, where the error is harmless. In this case, the Eighth District considered plaintiff’s cross-examination of one of defendant’s executives concerning last year’s profits. Plaintiff solicited the testimony and then argued the evidence during closing arguments. The Court of Appeals held the subject of defendant’s wealth should have been reserved for the punitive damages phase and constituted enough harm to grant defendant a new trial.
Full text of the decision can be found here.