The Second Department determined Supreme Court should not have granted plaintiff’s motion for a unified trial on liability and damages because the plaintiff had not demonstrated that the nature of his injuries had an important bearing on the issue of liability. Plaintiff, who was driving a golf cart, was injured when he allegedly swerved to avoid defendant’s on-coming golf cart. The court explained the relevant analytical criteria in some depth:
“In furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice [a] court . . . may order a separate trial of any claim, or of any separate issue” (CPLR 603). Furthermore, “[a] court may determine the sequence in which the issues shall be tried and otherwise regulate the conduct of the trial in order to achieve a speedy and unprejudiced disposition of the matters at issue” (CPLR 4011). These statutory provisions simply confirm that “the broad common-law powers of New York judges over conduct in their own courtrooms have been continued and have not been eliminated or impinged upon by any of the explicit CPLR provisions.”… .
“Judges are encouraged to order a bifurcated trial of the issues of liability and damages in any action for personal injury where it appears that bifurcation may assist in a clarification or simplification of issues and a fair and more expeditious resolution of the action” (22 NYCRR 202.42[a]…). “As a general rule, questions of liability and damages in a negligence action represent distinct and severable issues which should be tried and determined separately” … .
“The decision whether to conduct a bifurcated trial rests within the discretion of the trial court, and should not be disturbed absent an improvident exercise of discretion” (…see CPLR 603, 4011). Unified trials should only be held “where the nature of the injuries has an important bearing on the issue of liability” … . However, even where a trial is bifurcated, some evidence of injuries may nevertheless be admitted, in the trial court’s discretion, to establish liability at the liability phase of the trial, so long as such evidence is probative of liability and accompanied by “an appropriate limiting instruction” … .
Accordingly, when exercising its discretion in deciding whether to conduct a unified trial or a bifurcated trial, a court should determine whether the nature of the alleged injuries is probative of the issue of liability and, furthermore, should also evaluate the relative importance of such evidence to the parties’ dispute … . In addition, the probative value of such evidence to the issue of liability and its centrality to the parties’ dispute should be weighed against the degree to which the gravity of such injuries will likely engender sympathy for the plaintiff and thereby pose a risk of prejudice to the defendant … . Patino v County of Nassau, 2015 NY Slip Op 00509, 2nd Dept 1-21-15