The issue of trial bifurcation when dealing with punitive damages cases has been a hotly contested issue dating back to 1994 when the W.R. Grace & Co. Conn. v. Waters decision was issued by the Florida Supreme Court. Just recently the Second District Court of Appeal issued a similar opinion discussing the issue of bifurcation when addressing punitive damages awards.
In the case of Swanson v. Robles, the defendant was driving his truck when he ran into a vehicle owned by the City of Tampa. The city employee (representative by his wife as the estate) was working near the rear of the city vehicle, which was properly pulled over in the median area of the road, was struck by the defendant and was killed immediately. Before trial, the defendant confessed his negligence, admitting that his actions were the sole cause of the accident. Swanson also said that he was grossly negligent, warranting punitive damages to be awarded to the Plaintiff.
In what can be seen as a trial strategy move, the defendant conceded the plaintiff’s entitlement to punitive damages in order to keep evidence of the defendant’s drug use out of the compensatory phase of the trial. In so doing, the defendant made his motion to bifurcate the trial arguing that the Plaintiff’s entitlement to punitive damages was conceded and thus no longer a jury issue.
Therefore, evidence of his narcotic involvement wasn't probative of any factor in the compensatory trial phase. Thus, the Swanson argued that the evidence showing his drug use should only be admitted in the second phase of trial at the time the jury figured the punitive damage amount.
The trial court disagreed with the Plaintiff’s motion to bifurcate and the jury came back with a verdict of roughly $6 million dollars, of which $4,250,000 was awarded for the widow’s pain and suffering and $1,500,000 was awarded to the estate for punitive damages. From this verdict the defendant appealed.
The Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court and remanded the case for a new trial. The appellate court ruled that when a defendant admits liability in an automobile negligence case, and the only remaining issue is the amount of compensatory damages, evidence regarding the defendant’s sobriety should not be admitted into evidence. When a defendant admits the entire responsibility for an accident, evidence regarding liability is irrelevant and prejudicial. Thus, the appellate court followed the same procedural ruling in the W.R. Grace case, in that when dealing with a punitive damages cases, and where punitive damages has been conceded by the defendant, the trial should be bifurcated between a compensatory phase and a punitive phase and the probative value of the evidence weighed accordingly.