Unified Trial or Bifurcated?

Patino v County of Nassau,

___ AD3d ___, ___ NYS2d ___, 2015 NY Slip Op 00509 [2d Dept., 2015]

Two golf carts collided on a turn in a path at the Garden City Country Club. The plaintiff, driver of one cart, was injured, severely enough to need “numerous surgeries.” The driver of the other cart claimed that the plaintiff was speeding on the cart path.

Plaintiff here moved for a unified trial, on the grounds that proof of the injuries he sustained would support his claim that he was not speeding and hence bore significantly on the issue of liability. As proof, he submitted an affidavit from an expert in mechanical engineering, accident reconstruction and biomechanics claiming that the injuries proved that he could not have been traveling more than three miles per hour. Supreme Court agreed, and ordered a unified trial.

The Appellate Division, however, wasn’t buying it and reversed.

The preference in personal injury cases is for bifurcated trials, and unified trials should be ordered only where the nature of the injuries bears significantly on the liability issues. In determining whether a unified or bifurcated trial is more appropriate, the court should consider

“whether the nature of the alleged injuries is probative of the issue of liability and, furthermore, should also evaluate the relative importance of such evidence to the parties’ dispute . . . . In addition, the probative value of such evidence to the issue of liability and its centrality to the parties’ dispute should be weighed against the degree to which the gravity of such injuries will likely engender sympathy for the plaintiff and thereby pose a risk of prejudice to the defendant.” [citation omitted]

An important consideration, not always appreciated, is that evidence of injury need not be categorically ruled out on the liability phase of a bifurcated trial. Where some evidence of injury would be probative of liability, it can be admitted with an appropriate limiting instruction. This weighs against a unified trial.

The Appellate Division found the expert’s affidavit to be conclusory, failing to show how the injuries could establish the plaintiff’s speed so exactly. Given the severity of the injuries, a unified trial would create the danger of prejudice. Even accepting that there was a link between injuries and speed, the plaintiff showed no reason why it could not be proven on the liability phase. Finally, plaintiff did not show that a unified trial would serve judicial efficiency. The plaintiff did not claim that the expert would have to testify at both phases of a bifurcated trial.

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