United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
ORDER AND OPINION
Richard Mark Gergel, United States District Court Judge.
matter comes before the Court on Defendants' motion to
bifurcate the punitive damages trial from the trial on
liability (Dkt. No. 213). For the reasons set forth below,
the Court denies Defendants' motion.
April 4, 2015, Plaintiff Corinne Voeltz rented a condominium
at 113 East Arctic Avenue, Unit C in Folly Beach, South
Carolina (the "property"). (Dkt. No. 148-2 at 8 -
9.) That night, Plaintiff was on the first floor (one floor
up from the ground floor) of the property and opened an
access door to the elevator. (Id. at 22 - 23, 34.)
Plaintiff then stepped through the door and fell down the
elevator shaft because the elevator was not at the floor.
(Id.) Plaintiff filed suit against Defendants on
August 30, 2016. (Dkt. No. 1.) The case is set for trial on
April 22, 2019. (Dkt. No. 146.) Defendants now move to
bifurcate the punitive damages trial from the liability
trial, relying on S.C. Code Ann. § 15-32-520(A).
Plaintiff opposes the motion. (Dkt. No. 231.)
decision whether to bifurcate a trial is controlled by
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b). "For convenience,
to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize, the court
may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues,
claims, crossclaims, counterclaims, or third-party
claims." Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b). Motions to bifurcate are
reviewed for abuse of discretion. See In re
Hutchinson, 5 F.3d 750, 758 (4th Cir. 1993) ("We
review decisions to bifurcate trials for abuse of
discretion.") (citations omitted).
however, argue that the decision to bifurcate is not
discretionary, and instead is mandated by S.C. Code Ann.
§ 15-32-520(A), which states that "[a]ll actions
tried before a jury involving punitive damages, if requested
by any defendant against whom punitive damages are sought,
must be conducted in a bifurcated manner before the same
jury." It is well settled by Erie R.R. Co. v.
Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817 (1938) that federal
courts sitting in diversity "are to apply state
substantive law and federal procedural law." Hanna
v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 465, 85 S.Ct. 1136, 1141
(1965). Decisions on whether to bifurcate a trial are
procedural rather than substantive. See Hayes v. Arthur
Young & Co., 34 F.3d 1072 (9th Cir. 1994) (holding
bifurcation is an issue of federal procedural rules)
citing Simpson v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 901 F.2d
277, 283 (2d Cir. 1990); Northendlnv'rs, LLCv. S Tr.
Ins. Co., 256 F.Supp.3d 781, 788 (W.D. Tenn. 2017)
("Although a federal court sitting in diversity applies
the law of the forum state ...the conduct of discovery and
bifurcation are matters of federal procedural law.")
(citation omitted); Patel Family Tr. v. AMCO Ins.
Co., No. 2:1 l-CV-1003, 2012 WL 2883726, at *2 (S.D.
Ohio July 13, 2012) ("numerous federal courts have found
that Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b) controls the issue of bifurcation in
federal diversity cases despite the existence of a state law
or rule purporting to substantively govern
bifurcation.") (collecting cases). Courts in this
District sitting in diversity have similarly applied Rule
42(b) to determine whether to bifurcate. See Hill v. USA
Truck, Inc., No. 8.-06-CV-1010-GRA, 2007 WL 1574545, at
*10(D.S.C. May 30, 2007) ("Whether to bifurcate a trial
is a matter within the sound discretion of the trial
judge.") (citation omitted).
this Court must follow federal law in determining whether to
bifurcate this case rather than S.C. Code Ann. §
15-32-520(A). Rule 42(b) allows for bifurcation for purposes
of "convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and
economize...." Defendants have made no showing that any
such reason applies here. The Court finds that bifurcation
would not provide any convenience, or otherwise expedite or
economize the trial. Instead, damages will likely be a
central issue in this trial, as the facts regarding the fall
down the elevator shaft are largely (though not entirely)
undisputed, and bifurcation may lead to a longer trial with
an unnecessary overlapping of evidence related to liability
and punitive damages. Defendants have further failed to
present any evidence or argument that they would be
prejudiced by a failure to bifurcate.
foregoing reasons, the Court DENIES
Defendants motion to bifurcate. (Dkt. ...