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February 22nd, 2012

Ohio Supreme Court Upholds 2005 Tort Reform Statute

On February 15, 2012, in a 5-2 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the mandatory bifurcation provision of the punitive damages statute that was adopted in 2005.  This tort reform statute requires the bifurcation of a trial, upon the request of any party in a tort action in which both claims for compensatory damages and punitive damages are made.  In Havel v. Villa St. Joseph, the court held that the statute was constitutional and did not conflict with state court procedural laws. 

Prior to the statute being adopted in 2005, such trials could only be bifurcated at the discretion of the trial court judge.  Bifurcation would only occur when the judge believed it would promote convenience, avoid prejudice, or when it would be economically prudent or efficient to do so.  Now, upon the motion of either party, the trial will be divided into two phases.  In the first phase, no evidence of the plaintiff’s entitlement to punitive damages is permitted.  If the plaintiff is successful in the first phase and is awarded compensatory damages, then a second trial is held on the question of punitive damages.  This process will help ensure that punitive damages only are awarded in cases where they are warranted and defendants are not unfairly punished.

The court based its decision on a substantive law versus procedural law argument, finding that the 2005 statute created a substantive right to bifurcation in such cases, and therefore, takes precedence over procedural laws and does not violate the Ohio Constitution.  For the full court opinion, please click here.

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