In Havel v. Villa St. Jospeh, 2012-Ohio-552, the Ohio Supreme Court this week upheld a statute passed in 2005 that requires a trial to be split into two phases — or “bifurcated” — when a party is seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. The bifurcation of a trial requires a different jury to hear each phase of the case. The Court’s decision states that trials must be bifurcated pursuant to the statute, taking away a lower court’s discretion to decide whether bifurcation is warranted on a case-by-case basis.
Previously, pursuant to the Civil Rules of Court, judges were allowed to deny a request for bifurcation and allow a single jury to decide what amount of compensatory damages should be awarded and, at the same time, determine if the facts warranted an award of punitive damages against a defendant. This would save the courts’ and parties’ time, money and resources. Although rare, the finding of punitive damages in civil jury trials has remained one of the best methods of deterring egregious behavior of a party and preventing future occurrences.
By upholding the Constitutionality of the statute requiring bifurcation, the Havel decision will make it much more difficult to prove that punitive damages are warranted in cases.