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Progressive Max Insurance Co. v. Neeley

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

August 27, 2019

PROGRESSIVE MAX INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff,
v.
JOE NEELEY and ELIZABETH NEELEY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Bifurcate and Stay all proceedings, including discovery, with respect to Defendants' counterclaims. See Pl.'s Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, ECF No. 14. Defendants timely filed a Response in opposition to Plaintiff's Motion. See Def.'s Resp. to Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, ECF No. 17. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED with respect to discovery and DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE with respect to trial.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This litigation arises out of a motor vehicle accident that occurred in Pocahontas County, West Virginia on August 20, 2017, wherein Defendants Joe and Elizabeth Neeley sustained significant injuries after a driver collided with their motorcycle. Compl., ECF No. 1, at 3; Def.'s Resp. to Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, at 2. Defendants subsequently collected the entirety of the responsible driver's liability coverage. Def.'s Resp. to Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, at 2. As the driver's policy limit was not sufficient to cover Defendants' medical expenses stemming from the collision, they filed underinsured motorist claims with their insurer, Plaintiff Progressive Max Insurance Company. Def.'s Resp. to Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, at 2. Defendants maintain two insurance policies with Plaintiff: an automobile policy and a motorcycle policy. Compl., at 3. Plaintiff paid Defendants the limits of their motorcycle policy, but denied Defendants' underinsurance claim against the automobile policy. Compl., at 4.

         Plaintiff filed its Complaint on April 1, 2019, seeking a declaratory judgment that the automobile policy does not provide coverage for Defendant's motorcycle accident. See Compl., at 7. In their Answer filed on April 26, 2019, Defendants asserted three counterclaims: (1) common law and statutory bad faith and unfair settlement practices, (2) breach of contract, and (3) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. See Answer, ECF No. 9, at 8-12. On June 21, 2019, Plaintiff's filed a Motion to Bifurcate and Stay “all proceedings, including discovery, relative to Defendant's Counterclaims.” Pl.'s Mot. to Bifurcate and Stay, at 1. The Court considers Plaintiff's Motion below.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may bifurcate an action “[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b). This standard affords wide discretion to courts in determining whether bifurcation is appropriate. See Light v. Allstate Ins. Co., 182 F.R.D. 210, 213 (S.D. W.Va. 1998). “[A]lthough bifurcation is not unusual, it is the exception rather than the rule.” Dallas v. Goldberg, 143 F.Supp.2d 312, 315 (S.D.N.Y. 2001). It follows that a party moving for bifurcation “has the burden of showing that separate trials are proper in light of the general principle that a single trial tends to lessen . . . delay, expense, and inconvenience.” Welch v. Logan General Hosp., LLC, No. 2:15-cv-01022, 2015 WL 3797148, at *1 (S.D. W.Va. June 18, 2015) (quoting Belisle v. BNSF Ry. Co., 697 F.Supp.2d 1233, 1250 (D. Kan. 2010). As Plaintiff has moved to bifurcate both trial and discovery, the Court will address both halves of its Motion separately.

         A. Trial

         The Court first turns to Plaintiff's Motion to Bifurcate and Stay Defendants' counterclaims for trial purposes, arguing that “the claims should be litigated sequentially rather than concurrently” because “resolution of Plaintiff's coverage claim will most likely be dispositive of Defendant's [counter]claims.”[1] Pl.'s Mem. of Law, ECF No. 15, at 7. The Court finds this argument unconvincing, as “[n]early every case that comes before the Court has a threshold issue that upon resolution in one or the other parties' favor might obviate other claims.” Sheppard v. Direct Gen. Ins. Co., No. 3:16-11418, 2017 WL 11249431, at *2 (S.D. W.Va. June 19, 2017). It follows that the need to determine a coverage issue as a threshold matter “is irrelevant to the Court's decision” to bifurcate and stay certain claims. Id. As such, the Court is not persuaded that the mere possibility of doing away with Defendants' counterclaims is enough to justify bifurcating and staying portions of this case.

         Moreover, it is already well established in this District that bifurcating and staying Defendants' claims for trial purposes before the conclusion of discovery would be premature. See, e.g., Id. at *2 (noting that “[i]n three recent decisions, by federal district courts in West Virginia that are remarkably similar to this case, trial judges, including this Court, found it premature [to] request bifurcation early in the discovery process”); Wilkinson v. Mut. of Omaha Ins. Co., No. 2:13-cv-09356, 2014 WL 880876, at *1 (S.D. W.Va. Mar. 6, 2014) (concluding that bifurcating trial proceedings before the end of discovery would be premature); Scarberry v. Huffman, No. 3:10-0831, 2010 WL 4068923, at *1 (S.D. W.Va. Oct. 15, 2010) (citing Tustin v. Motorists Mut. Ins. Co., No. 5:08CV111, 2008 WL 5377835, at *2 (N.D. W.Va. Dec. 22, 2008)) (reasoning that motion to bifurcate and stay claims for trial was raised prematurely, as discovery had not yet concluded).

         The Court sees no satisfactory rationale to depart from this line of reasoning in the instant case. Therefore, as it is premature, the Court will deny without prejudice the portion of Plaintiff's Motion that seeks to bifurcate and stay Defendant's counterclaims for trial purposes. Plaintiff is free to refile its motion at the close of discovery.

         B. Discovery

         In addition to its Motion to Bifurcate and Stay Defendants' counterclaims for trial, Plaintiff also moves to bifurcate discovery proceedings. Plaintiff argues that “bifurcation and stay of Defendants' claims, including discovery . . . is appropriate” because “litigation of the first issue might eliminate the need to litigate the second issue.” Pl.'s Mem. of Law, at 7. In essence, Plaintiff contends that bifurcating discovery will foster judicial economy-an interest it characterizes as lying at the “heart of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b).”[2] The Court disagrees.

         Trial courts may “determine on a case-by-case basis whether to stay discovery on a bifurcated bad faith claim.” Light v. Allstate Ins. Co., 506 S.E.2d 64, 72 ( W.Va. 1998). While this Court has yet to determine whether to bifurcate Defendants' counterclaims, this discretionary standard is appropriate for deciding whether to stay discovery. See Wilkinson, 2014 WL 880876, at *2. In making a determination, courts ...


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