Oral Argument Preview: Tort Reform Redux? The Constitutionality of the Mandatory Bifurcation Provision of R.C. 2315.21(B). Havel v. Villa St. Joseph.

Update: On February 18, 2012 the Supreme Court of Ohio issued a merit decision in this case.  Read that post here.

On Sept. 21 the Ohio Supreme Court will hear the case of Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, #10-2148, which addresses the constitutionality of R.C. 2315.21(B).

R.C. 2315.21(B) mandates the bifurcation of compensatory and punitive damages claims in a jury trial in a tort action upon motion of either party. Civ. R. 42(B) gives trial courts the discretion to order separate trials of any claims or issues to avoid prejudice or in the interest of judicial economy.

Sandra Havel, the personal representative of the estate of John Havel, brought claims for medical malpractice, wrongful death, and violation of the Nursing Home Bill of Rights, seeking compensatory and punitive damages. At trial, Villa St. Joseph filed a motion to bifurcate the damages claims pursuant to R.C. 2315.21(B).  The trial court denied the motion, which Villa appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals.

The Eighth District affirmed the decision of the trial court and found 2315.21(B) to be procedural and unconstitutional.  In 2009, in Hanners v. Ho Wah Genting Wire & Cable, 2009-Ohio-6481, the Tenth District Court of Appeals held that R.C. 2315.21 (B) was  substantive and constitutional, and  prevailed over Civ. R. 42(B).

The Ohio Supreme Court accepted the case on conflict certification on the issue of whether R.C. 2315.21(B), as amended as part of the tort reform measures enacted in S.B. 80, effective April 7, 2005, is unconstitutional, in violation of Section 5(B), Article IV of the Ohio Constitution, because it is a procedural law that conflicts with Civ. R. 42(B).

Under Section 5(B) Article IV the Supreme Court is empowered to create rules of practice and procedure. But such rules shall not “abridge, enlarge, or modify any substantive right.”  Where a conflict arises between a rule and a statute, the court’s rule will control for procedural matters; the legislature’s statute will control for matters of substantive law. So a two part determination is necessary.  First, does a conflict exist between the rule and the statute?  If so, is the statute substantive or procedural?

Villa first argues that there is no conflict between the rule and the statute, because the statute is specific and applies only to tort claims involving compensatory and punitive damages in which a party moves for bifurcation.  In contrast, the rule is general and applies to a broader group of cases in which the court retains discretion. While there may be a conflict in a subset of cases, there isn’t a conflict all the time.There is also no conflict in the constitutional sense because the rule and the statute have completely different purposes.

Villa next argues that the statute is “a substantive law packaged in procedural wrapping.” In interpreting a statute the court must look to legislative intent. In this case legislative intent is found in the uncodified language from S.B. 80, which states that R.C. 2315.21(B) was intended to restore fairness, balance, and predictability to the civil justice system. S.B. 80, reads, in part, that  “[i]n cases in which punitive damages are requested, defendants should have the right to request bifurcation of a trial to ensure that evidence of misconduct is not inappropriately considered by the jury in its determination of liability and compensatory damages.”

Havel argues that the statute is directly and irreconcilably in conflict with the rule, since the statute requires bifurcation while the rule allows it in the court’s discretion, and thus the statute is unconstitutional.

Havel also argues the language in the statute shows it is clearly procedural. In, making this determination, the Court need only look at legislative history if a statute is ambiguous on its face, which R.C. 2315.21(B) is not.

Havel addresses Villa’s contention that the statute is substantive by arguing that Villa confuses a substantive right with a procedure for asserting a substantive right.  Litigants already have the right to ask for punitive damages and to ask for bifurcation of claims.  According to Havel, R.C. 2315.21(B) only provides a mechanism for litigants to assert their rights to bifurcate damages claims in a tort action.  This does not make a substantive right; instead, it provides a procedure for exercising already existing rights.

Havel finally argues that the Court has already struck down an almost identical statute in an earlier tort reform challenge in State ex rel. Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers v. Sheward. (1999), 86 Ohio St.3d 451, finding the former 2315.21(B) to be procedural and not substantive. However, this is a very different court from the Sheward court. As Villa points out, in Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson, 2007-Ohio-6948, the Court upheld most aspects of 2315.21, the new punitive damages statute, but did not address the constitutionality of the mandatory bifurcation provision in that case.

Villa has amicus support from the Attorney General, the Ohio Hospital Association, the Ohio Alliance for Justice, the Physician Insurers Association of America and the Ohio Association of Civil Trial Attorneys. The Ohio Association for Justice has filed an amicus brief in support of Havel.

 Update

The Fifth District Court of Appeals has also found R.C. 2315.21(B) to be unconstitutional in Plauger v. Oniala, et al.  and Ethan David Knowles (cases 2011-0688 and 2011-0779) a pair of cases  arising from two autombile accidents. The Fifth District has certified its decisions as being in conflict with the Tenth District’s decision in Hanners v. Ho Wah Genting Wire & Cable, 2009-Ohio-6481.  The Supreme Court of Ohio has accepted and consolidated the two Fifth District cases, and has held them for decision in the Havel case. 

Student Contributor: Jason Persinger

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One Response to Oral Argument Preview: Tort Reform Redux? The Constitutionality of the Mandatory Bifurcation Provision of R.C. 2315.21(B). Havel v. Villa St. Joseph.

  1. Professor I enjoyed your article. A case to watch for us employment lawyers.

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