Ohio Supreme Court Rules Against Consumers in Punitive Damage Case

The Republican-dominated Ohio Supreme Court again ruled against the consumer in a recent decision challenging the constitutionality of mandatory splitting (bifurcation) of cases where the plaintiff is claiming punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.  The Ohio Constitution provides that only the Ohio Supreme Court can make rules that govern the procedural aspects of a case.  Although the Ohio legislature can make laws that govern people's rights, the legislature cannot make laws that set forth the procedures to be followed in the courtroom.  Whether a case should be bifurcated has always been part of the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure and deemed to be a procedural rule and not a substantive one.  However, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory bifurcation was a substantive law and within the rights of the legislature to change.

As part of a massive effort to reduce consumer rights in 2005, the Ohio Legislature passed laws that altered the amount of damages allowed in civil suits, reduced time limitation to bring lawsuits, and a brought about a whole host of laws that diminished an injured person's ability to make a full recovery.  One of those new laws allowed a defendant in a lawsuit to set up another roadblock if the plaintiff sought punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.  Punitive damages are allowed in certain egregious cases to punish the defendant for extremely reckless behavior that had a great probability of causing harm.  These damages are in excess of the compensatory damages that are designed to reimburse an injured person for economic and non-economic losses.

The new law allows a defendant to separate into two phases any trial in which punitive damages are in issue.  In the first phase, the jury will only hear evidence that will allow it to determine compensatory damages.  In the second phase, if compensatory damages have been awarded, the jury would hear evidence about punitive damages.  If, for example, the defendant was drunk when he crashed into the injured party's car, that evidence would not be admitted during the first phase of the case if the defendant simply admitted that he or she was at fault.  Evidence of the defendant's reckless behavior would only be allowed after the jury awarded compensatory damages. A jury that was determining what was just compensation for an injured person would not know that the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the auto crash.

This rule adds time and expense to the party seeking a just verdict.  It also deprives the jury from knowing about the behavior of the defendant when deciding how much to award in damages.

Again, the Ohio Supreme Court decides to side with insurance companies and big business.  Consumers get the short end of the stick once again.