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October 24, 2019

Second Department Allows for Unified Trials; Rules Bifurcation Not a Requirement

Prior to the adoption of the statewide Uniform Rules of the Trial Courts, personal injury trials held in the Second Department were presumed to be bifurcated on issues of liability and damages, with a unified trial only granted upon a showing of good cause. The 1986 Uniform Rules, however, state that a bifurcated trial is “encouraged” only “where it appears that bifurcation may assist in a clarification or simplification of issues and a fair more expeditious resolution of the action” (22 NYCRR 202.42(a)). Yet, for 33 years, Second Department trial courts relied upon the previous presumption in favor of bifurcation and interpreted Rule 202.42(a) to mean that issues of liability and damages should only be tried together in “exceptional circumstances” when issues of damages and liability were intertwined.

Recently, in Castro v. Malia Realty, LLC, the Appellate Division, Second Department reversed a post-trial judgment of dismissal due to the lower court’s denial of plaintiff Manuel Castro’s motion for a unified trial on the issues of liability and damages. Castro claimed he fell from a scaffold at a construction site, sustaining head, neck, and back injuries. The defendants disputed Castro’s account, alleging his injuries were the result of lifting wooden planks and not a fall from an elevated position, rendering Labor Law 240(1) inapplicable.

Castro moved for a unified trial on the grounds that medical evidence concerning his injuries was necessary to refute the defendants’ position that he did not fall from a scaffold. The Supreme Court denied Castro’s motion, holding that a bifurcated trial was “required under the [S]econd [D]epartment rules.” The liability phase of the trial ended with a verdict in the defendants’ favor, and judgment was entered dismissing the complaint.

On appeal, the Second Department reversed the lower court, set aside the judgment, and remanded the case for a unified trial, holding “the nature of the injuries had an important bearing on the issue of liability,” as the “[e]vidence relating to [the plaintiff’s] brain injuries … was probative in determining how the incident occurred.” Challenging decades of precedent and local practice, the Second Department noted the bench and bar’s widespread opinion “inflexibly” in favor of bifurcation was misplaced. Instead, the court made clear that “it is the responsibility of the trial judge to exercise discretion in determining whether bifurcation is appropriate in light of all relevant facts and circumstances presented by the individual cases.”

The decision is consistent with those of the other departments that the determination of whether to hold a unified or bifurcated trial requires consideration of the facts and circumstances of the particular case. It is not clear, however, whether the Second Department trial courts will adopt unified trials as the norm, as the other departments have done. The Castro decision is important for counsel and litigants to consider during the course of discovery and trial preparation.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Amanda Miller, associate, at amiller@barclaydamon.com or another member of the firm’s Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.

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