Full text of the Court's opinion

In Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, slip op., 2010-Ohio-5251, the Eighth District Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional R.C. 2315.21(B), which mandated bifurcation of the compensatory and punitive damage phases of a trial.

Havel involved an appeal from a claim of malpractice against a nursing home in the care of one of its patients. The Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas denied the defendants’ motion to bifurcate the punitive and compensatory damages phases of the trial, which the defendants argued was mandatory rather than discretionary.

On appeal, the Eighth Appellate District began by noting that Article IV, Section 5(B) of the Ohio Constitution vests exclusive jurisdiction in the Ohio Supreme Court to prescribe the rules of procedure for Ohio’s courts. Thus, when a rule and statute conflict, the rule will control a procedural matter, while the statute will control a substantive matter. Statutes that purport to control procedural matter in contravention of a rule promulgated by the Ohio Supreme Court are deemed to be in violation of the Supreme Court’s exclusive jurisdictional authority under the Ohio Constitution.

According to the Havel court, such a conflict existed between R.C. 2315.21(B) and Ohio Rule of Civil Procedure 42(B). Ohio R.C. 2315.21(B) states “in a tort action that is tried to a jury and in which a plaintiff makes a claim for compensatory damages and a claim for punitive or exemplary damages, upon the motion of any party, the trial of the tort action shall be bifurcated . . ..” (Emphasis added.) Civil Rule 42(B) provides “the court, after a hearing, in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice, or when separate trials will be conducive to expedition and economy, may order a separate trial of any claim, cross-claim, counterclaim, or third-party claim or any separate issue or of any number of claims . . .” (Emphasis added.)

The Eighth Appellate District in Havel noted it had previously addressed this issue in Barnes v. University Hospital of Cleveland, 2006-Ohio-6266. In Barnes, it had found the trial court could exercise its discretion when ruling upon a bifurcation motion. Nevertheless, the defendants in Havel urged the Eighth District to follow Hanners v. Ho Wah Genting Wire and Sign SDN BHD, Tenth Dist. No. 09AP-361, 2009-Ohio-6481, where that court held the denial of a motion to bifurcate involved a substantive issue, and thus R.C. 2315.21(B) controlled over Civil Rule 42(B).

Relying on the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion in Norfolk S. RR CO. v. Bogle, 115 Ohio St. 3d 455, 2007-Ohio-5248, the Havel court held that substantive laws relate to rights and duties giving rise to a cause of action, while procedural rules concern the machinery for carrying on a suit. The court found bifurcation did not grant a right or impose a duty giving rise to a cause of action; bifurcation is a procedural matter related to carrying out a case, and thus the civil rule took precedence over the statute. As such, the court found R.C. 2315.21(B) violated Article IV, Section 5(B) of the Ohio Constitution as inconsistent with Civil Rule 42(B).

The appellants in Havel have moved the Eighth District to certify a conflict to the Ohio Supreme Court.