Today was another sad day for Ohioans injured by drunk drivers, nursing home abuse and sexual deviants. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld legislation that requires a trial court to split cases into an initial phase involving compensatory damages and a second phase involving punitive damages. The legislation was a gift to well-heeled insurance companies. Here’s how it works: in the first phase, the jury is only permitted to hear facts that support a claim of negligence, such as the fact that a Defendant’s car crashed into some Plaintiff’s car. The jury will not get to hear that the Defendant was drunk at the time of the crash because that would be the subject of the second phase where punitive damages are considered. Thus, the legislation protects the Defendant/drunk driver. You can read the case here: http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-ohio-552.pdf. Justices Pfeiffer and McGee-Brown dissented.
This court decision is bad for two reasons. First, Ohio courts are constitutionally bound to create rules for the administration of justice. This bifurcation statute is an improper incursion by the legislative branch of government into the realm of the judicial branch. Thus, in allowing the legislature to create a court rule that favors its corporate contributors, the Ohio Supreme Court abdicated its constitutional responsibilities. Our tripartite system of government is based on the notion that power should not be centralized into one branch of government where is can be abused. When one branch of government simply defers its responsibilities to another, power congregates there, making it easier for special interests to get gift legislation like the bifurcation statute.
Second, the bifurcation legislation was totally unnecessary. Ohio juries are very conservative when it comes to awarding money damages. Punitive damage awards in particular are exceedingly rare. However, in those unique cases where punitive damages are warranted, jurors should be able to consider all facts in making their decision.
It is very inefficient for a jury to hear a case in two parts. The unnecessary delay inherent in bifurcation wastes precious time of jurors who are already sacrificing enough. When that delay is unnecessary, created by a legislature that is not even supposed to be tinkering with Ohio’s court rules and designed to protect wrongdoers, the Ohio Supreme Court should not just take a backseat and look the other way.