In a simple dispute between two parties, one imagines that they go through one trial, the jury or judge considers the issues, and a decision is rendered. Not all cases, however, are this simple. When different types of damages determinations are involved, for example, court procedures can change in the course of a lawsuit. In a recent Florida district court of appeal decision, the court had to consider such an issue. The plaintiff was stopped at a red light when he was rear-ended by the defendant. Following the collision, the plaintiff sued the defendant for compensatory damages. The plaintiff also sued for punitive damages because the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the accident. Before trial, the parties agreed that if the plaintiff was awarded compensatory damages, then he would also be entitled to punitive damages. During the trial, the plaintiff introduced evidence of the defendant’s intoxication, which was irrelevant to the determination of compensatory damages. The jury awarded the plaintiff significant compensatory and punitive damages following trial.
On appeal, the defendant argued that the lower court should not have allowed the plaintiff to introduce evidence of intoxication during the trial, and the court agreed and sided with the defendant. According to the court, when considering compensatory damages during the trial, the jury was not supposed to factor in whether or not the defendant was intoxicated because the parties had agreed prior to trial that punitive damages would be available only if the plaintiff received compensatory damages first. Thus, the evidence of intoxication unduly influenced the jury to take it into consideration when awarding compensatory damages and resulted in a larger award.
In Florida, bifurcation, or a judge’s ability to divide a trial into two parts to render a decision on two separate legal issues, is proper when compensatory and punitive damages are both considered in a case. For example, in a case such as this one, punitive damages were only available because the defendant was intoxicated, but the plaintiff would only be eligible for them if he was awarded compensatory damages first. The defendant claimed the introduction of the evidence unfairly influenced the jury’s ability to fairly determine compensatory damages and should have been reserved for a separate trial phase.