On February 15, 2012, the Supreme Court of Ohio upheld a statutory provision requiring trial courts to grant requests to bifurcate trial into two stages where a party seeks compensatory and punitive damages. This decision resolves a recurring conflict between the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure and the Ohio Revised Code.

In Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, the plaintiff’s estate filed suit against a nursing home facility, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. Villa St. Joseph moved to bifurcate trial pursuant to Revised Code § 2315.21(B), which mandates, upon motion by any party, the bifurcation of any such trial into two stages: 1) an initial stage relating only to the presentation of evidence and determination by the jury as to recovery of compensatory damages; and  2) if necessary, a second stage relating only to the presentation of evidence and determination by the jury as to recovery of punitive or exemplary damages. After the trial court in Havel summarily denied Villa St. Joseph’s motion to bifurcate, the Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, holding that the bifurcation mandate contained in § 2315.21(B) is unconstitutional because it conflicts with a strictly procedural matter governed by Rule 42(B) of the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure, which gives a trial court complete discretion in determining whether to bifurcate a trial.

On appeal to the Supreme Court of Ohio, Villa St. Joseph argued that § 2315.21(B) creates a substantive right to the bifurcation of punitive damages proceedings, and therefore trumps the procedural discretion conferred by Ohio’s Civil Rules. Havel’s estate argued that the Eighth District was correct in its conclusion that bifurcation is a matter of procedural – not substantive – law and that the mandatory bifurcation process set forth in § 2315.21(B) improperly conflicts with the bifurcation procedure established by Civil Rule 42(B). The Supreme Court of Ohio agreed with Villa St. Joseph.

Ohio’s high court reasoned that § 2315.21(B) does more than establish the procedure for bifurcation but, rather, creates, defines and regulates a substantive, enforceable right to separate stages of trial on the issues of compensatory and punitive damages in tort cases. By eliminating a trial court’s discretion over bifurcation in this regard, § 2315.21(B) transforms what previously was a request for bifurcation under Civil Rule 42(B) into a demand for a statutory entitlement. The Havel court pointed to General Assembly comments which demonstrate legislative intent to assure that evidence of misconduct giving rise to punitive damages will not be inappropriately considered by a jury in its liability determination and award of compensatory damages. The Court expressly rejected the argument by Havel’s estate that § 2315.21(B) improperly conflicts with a trial court’s procedural discretion: “As noted in case law, a statute may create a substantive right despite being packaged in procedural wrapping.”

The Havel decision confirms that a defendant in a tort suit, including an employer in a discrimination lawsuit, has a statutory right to separate the issues of compensatory damages and punitive damages at trial. This entitlement to bifurcation not only requires a plaintiff to present discrete evidence for each element of damages, but also helps to prevent a jury from misapplying any such evidence.