The process of filing a lawsuit and getting damages can be complex and incredibly difficult to follow. There have been cases recently in the news dealing with injuries and other things like libel where the court had not one but two (or even three) trials. This process, known as “bifurcating” (or even “trifurcating”) a trial is helpful for a few reasons, but is it required?
Under Maryland law, there is no requirement to bifurcate every trial. The majority of cases are simple, and cases usually end up needing bifurcation only when special rules and circumstances apply to them. This means that most trials will be fine without bifurcating the process, but there are some important reasons that the plaintiff or defendant – usually the defendant – might try to get the trial bifurcated.
If you were in an accident, contact the Maryland personal injury attorneys at Rice, Murtha & Psoras by calling (410) 694-7291.
What Does it Mean to Bifurcate an Injury Trial in Maryland?
The word “bifurcate” means to split into two forks or branches. In a trial for a personal injury case, there are a lot of issues to deal with, and handling them all in one case can be impractical or even unfair to one party or the other. At the very least, it can be exhausting for a jury to have to handle all the issues in one case. As such, sometimes bifurcation is allowed to split the trial in two so that each trial deals with a separate issue.
Usually, when our Baltimore personal injury attorneys discuss bifurcation for a personal injury case, we are talking about dividing the case into one trial to decide liability and one trial to decide damages. This means that the one jury would take a look at the facts and decide who was at fault in the case, and the other jury would look at the medical bills and other evidence to determine how much the case is worth.
Cases can also be trifurcated, usually to separate out trials for liability, compensatory damages, and punitive damages. Compensatory damages look only at the harm done, while punitive damages look only at the defendant’s fault, so these deal with separate facts that could taint the other analysis.
Courts might also bifurcate trials to tackle separate issues in separate trials. If the injury was complex and involved negligence from two separate issues, each issue might go to its own trial so that it is less confusing for the jury or does not tire them out by taking such a long time on each sub-issue.
When Does Maryland Law Bifurcate Trials for Personal Injury Cases?
Under Maryland law, there is usually no requirement to bifurcate injury trials in every case. Instead, most injury cases will involve taking the issue of liability and damages to the same jury and having them decide the whole case all at once.
Since bifurcation is optional, we need a rule to determine who gets to bifurcate trials and when it can be done. That rule comes under Md. Code, Civ. Proc. Art., § 2-503(b), which says that the judge can split the trial in response to a motion from either party or on their own. The judge has the option of splitting out “any claim” or “any separate issue.”
The rule allows the judge to bifurcate the case merely for “convenience,” such as in cases where the facts for each issue are incredibly complex and require a lot of witnesses and evidence, or the judge can do this “to avoid prejudice.”
Why Would You Want to Bifurcate a Personal Injury Trial in Maryland?
Bifurcation happens rarely, but in some situations, it is incredibly helpful. However, it is not always helpful to the plaintiff.
If the case is too complex to hear all at once or there are essentially separate sets of facts that pertain to different issues, it might just be easier to hold two separate trials. The judge is able to bifurcate a trial simply for convenience if pushing everything into one trial would take too much time or be a burden on the jury.
This does not necessarily weigh against one party or the other; either party could have an easier or harder time by splitting the trial up. However, this will mean that the jury doesn’t get to see all of the info regarding the defendant’s fault when it comes time to decide damages.
The other reason listed directly in the rule is the avoidance of prejudice. In court, “prejudice” occurs when one side would be seen in a bad light by the jury because of something that happened in the trial. Essentially, if something in the case would turn the jury against one side in an unfair way, the judge can take actions – including bifurcating a trial – to prevent that issue from tainting the jury’s opinion.
One way that bifurcation can avoid prejudice to the defendant is when it comes to punitive damages. For example, a 2021 drunk driving car accident case dealt with facts similar to the example we will discuss here. Imagine a driver is drunk and causes a car crash. In the liability stage of the trial, the jury will have to look at evidence of their DUI and their fault, and they will need to look at that information again when addressing how much punitive damages to award. However, compensatory damages – damages to pay the victim back for harm – should not take intent or fault into account in any way. So bifurcating the compensatory and punitive damage questions can mean that the jury looks at how much harm the accident caused without knowing that the driver was drunk, and they can look at how much to punish the driver in a separate trial.
One way that bifurcation can help the victim is in cases of close calls on liability. In Maryland, if a victim contributed to their own accident, then they cannot receive compensation at all. A close case might have a lot of information about what the victim did wrong but still come out in favor of the victim winning the case. Separating out the liability question and damages question can help the plaintiff avoid having all of the information about their near fault come in and potentially prejudice the jury against them when deciding how much to pay them.
Some Issues Decided by Law
Not every issue needs to go to a jury, and sometimes judges can decide some matters “as a matter of law.” In the face of overwhelming evidence of fault, admissions of liability, a criminal conviction for the same conduct, or a court sanction against the defendant, the judge might rule on the issue of liability without giving it to the jury. Then, the only issue left to go to the jury is the question of damages.
Call Our Maryland Personal Injury Attorneys for Help
For a free assessment of your injury case, call (410) 694-7291 to speak with Rice, Murtha & Psoras’ Towson personal injury attorneys.