Ohio SC upholds tort reform law

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 16, 2012, 3:18pm



COLUMBUS, Ohio (Legal Newsline) - The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a state law requiring courts to bifurcate tort lawsuits into separate proceedings.

In 2005, the state's General Assembly enacted the law to restore balance, fairness and predictability in Ohio's civil justice system.

Under the law, at the request of a defendant, a trial court must divide the case into two stages.

At the first stage, the jury determines the defendant's liability and awards compensatory damages. At the second stage, the jury decides whether to award punitive damages.

This splitting of the process allows juries to determine a defendant's liability before reaching the question of punitive damages.

The case at issue involved a lawsuit for medical malpractice, wrongful death and violation of the Ohio Nursing Home Patients' Bill of Rights.

Plaintiff Sandra Havel, as the personal representative of the estate of John Havel, sued the Villa St. Joseph and Village of Marymount nursing homes.

The complaint alleged that, while he was recuperating from hip surgery at Villa St. Joseph, John Havel developed skin ulcers that required surgery, contracted a bacterial infection of the ulcers following that surgery, and died several months later as a result of complications from the infection.

Havel's complaint sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

The defendants moved to bifurcate the trial into two stages pursuant to state law.

The trial court denied the motion to bifurcate without stating a reason.

Villa St. Joseph appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

The appellate court held that the law is unconstitutional because it conflicts with another law, in violation of the separation of powers required by the Ohio Constitution, by purporting "to legislate a strictly procedural matter already addressed by the Civil Rules."

The Eighth District certified that its decision in the case was in conflict with a 2009 decision of the 10th District Court of Appeals, Hanners v. Ho Wah Genting Wire & Cable, in which that court upheld the law as constitutional.

The state's high court agreed to resolve the conflict between the two appellate districts.

In a 5-2 majority opinion, the Court held that the 2005 state law "creates, defines and regulates a substantive, enforceable right to separate stages of trial relating to the presentation of evidence for compensatory and punitive damages in tort actions," and does not violate the Ohio Constitution.

"The General Assembly demonstrate(d) its intent to create a substantive right to ensure that evidence of misconduct is not inappropriately considered by the jury in its assessment of liability and its award of compensatory damages," Justice Terrence O'Donnell wrote in the Court's 16-page ruling.

The Court's decision reversed the Eighth District's ruling.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who defended the state Legislature's decision and participated in the case and oral argument as an amicus, said he was "pleased" with the Court's decision.

"The General Assembly enacted this law to ensure that civil defendants had substantial protection from unjust verdicts," DeWine said in a statement Wednesday.

"I am pleased that the Ohio Supreme Court has upheld this provision that brings more predictability to our civil justice system."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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