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Deitz v. Patton

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

January 9, 2017

MYKENDRA DEITZ, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DANNY E. PATTON, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          JOSEPH R. GOODWIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the court are twelve Motions in Limine [ECF Nos. 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59], a Motion to Strike or Bifurcate [ECF No. 51], and a Motion to Reserve the Right to File Additional Motions in Limine [ECF No. 52] submitted by the defendant BWC Trucking Co., Inc. (“BWC”). The plaintiffs have responded.

         a. Background

         This case arises out of a motor vehicle accident in Nicholas County, West Virginia on October 21, 2013. See Compl. ¶¶ 9-23 [ECF No. 1]. The Complaint alleges the plaintiffs were attempting a left turn at the intersection of Grizzly Road and Interstate 119 when they were struck by a tractor-trailer operated by the defendant Danny Patton. Id. at ¶¶ 9-12. The Complaint prays for both compensatory and punitive damages for the plaintiffs' injuries. Id. at 4.

         On June 24, 2015, the plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia against the defendants Danny Patton and BWC. Id. at 1. The court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Id. at ¶¶ 1-2.

         b. Motion to Strike or to Bifurcate

         BWC has filed a Motion to Strike Plaintiffs' Claim for Punitive Damages Or, In The Alternative, To Bifurcate Trial [ECF No. 51]. BWC's Motion is, in part, a renewed summary judgment motion requesting dismissal of the plaintiffs' punitive damages claim. The court has previously ruled on this matter and denied summary judgment. See Order, Nov. 16, 2016 [ECF No. 35]. Therefore, the Motion insofar as it requests dismissal of the punitive damages claim is DENIED.

         To the extent that the Motion requests bifurcation of the punitive damages claims pursuant to Rule 42(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedureand W.Va. Code § 55-7-29(b), [1] the Motion is also DENIED. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b) provides:

The court, in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice, or when separate trials will be conducive to expedition and economy, may order a separate trial of any claim, cross-claim, counterclaim, or third-party claim, or of any separate issue or of any number of claims, cross-claims, counterclaims, third-party claims, or issues, always preserving the right of trial by jury as declared by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution or as given by a statute of the United States.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 42(b). Under Rule 42(b), “the granting of separate trials is within the sound discretion of the trial judge.” Bowie v. Sorrell, 209 F.2d 49, 51 (4th Cir. 1953). Separating issues for trial, however, “is not to be routinely ordered.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b) advisory committee's note; see also 9A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2388 (3d ed. 2008) (“Rule 42(b) should be resorted to only as the result of the exercise of informed discretion when the district judge believes that separation will achieve the purposes of the separate trial rule.”). In determining whether bifurcation is appropriate in the instant case, I must perform a two-step analysis: first, I must determine whether separate trials would either avoid prejudice or promote judicial economy; and second, I must determine whether bifurcation would unfairly prejudice the non-moving party. See Houseman v. U.S. Aviation Underwriters, 171 F.3d 1117, 1121 (7th Cir. 1999).

         As the moving party, BWC has the burden of persuading me that bifurcation is appropriate. See Toler, 309 F.R.D. at 225. BWC argues that a bifurcated trial would avoid prejudice because the case involves a traumatic brain injury-“a sensitive topic, highly susceptible to confusion, and further requir[ing] the fact finder to carefully consider and analyze scientific issues requiring extensive expert testimony.” Mot. Strike 4. BWC further argues that the punitive damages claim hinges on malicious conduct and that the plaintiffs “undoubtedly intend to turn to inflammatory evidence.” Id. Thus, according to BWC, a bifurcated trial will “preserve the impartial jury necessary to truly evaluate a complex and sensitive question.” Id. at 5. BWC's argument, simply, is that if the compensatory and punitive damages are tried together, prejudice will result because the jury will not be able to reach an unbiased calculation of compensatory damages having heard evidence of malice going to the punitive damages claim.

         BWC's argument is based on mere speculation, and federal courts have found that such a naked assertion is an inadequate basis upon which a court should grant a separate trial. See, e.g., Toler, 309 F.R.D. at 225-26 (finding the movant's argument, that evidence of bad faith would taint jury's ability to fairly decide the amount of coverage owed, as inadequate to prove prejudice)[2]; see also Montgomery v. Am. Family Ins. Co., No. 3:09-v-00545, 2010 WL 1936085, at *2 (N.D. Ind. May 11, 2010) (“American Family's naked assertion that it ‘might' be prejudiced by certain testimony and defense tactics is an inadequate basis for bifurcation.”). Moreover, “[a]ny potential prejudice resulting from combined trials can be remedied by protective measures, including cautionary warnings, limiting instructions, and other instructions to the jury.” Welch v. Logan Gen. Hosp., LLC, No. 2:15-cv-01022, 2015 WL 3797148, at *3 (S.D. W.Va. June 18, 2015) (citation omitted). BWC has offered no argument for how bifurcation would serve judicial economy. Accordingly, BWC has not demonstrated that it will be prejudiced by a unitary trial of this case.[3] For all these reasons, insofar as the Motion seeks bifurcation, the Motion [ECF No. 51] is DENIED.

         c. Remaining Motions

         BWC has submitted several Motions in Limine that are a regurgitation of the Federal Rules of Evidence. The court does not permit general evidentiary objections to be made in the guise of a motion in limine and declines to issue an advisory opinion on evidentiary objections. The court will apply the Federal Rules of Evidence at trial. For ...


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