Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Judge Nealon of Lackawanna County Denies Motion to Sever Post-Koken Claims But Foreshadows That Bifurcation of Trial May Be Warranted When Punitive Damages in Play

In the case of Martin v. Ochenduszko, No. 17-CV-3912 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Jan. 16, 2019 Nealon, J.), Judge Terrence R. Nealon of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas addressed the UIM carrier’s Motion to Sever the Plaintiffs’ UIM claims from the tort claims asserted against a tortfeasor Defendant against whom punitive damages claims were pled given the Defendant-driver’s alleged operation of a vehicle under the influence of controlled substances at the time of the accident.  

According to the Opinion, this Motion to Sever was filed after the tortfeasor confirmed an admission of liability for the accident and after his carrier had tendered its liability limits to the Plaintiff in settlement of the tort claims, which settlement the Plaintiff had not yet accepted.  The Plaintiff was apparently trying to strategically keep the DUI tortfeasor Defendant in the case with the UIM carrier Co-Defendant. 

The motion filed by the UIM carrier sought to sever the UIM claims from the tort claims and to stay consideration of the UIM claims until the tort claims had been concluded.

Judge Terrence R. Nealon
Lackawanna County

Judge Nealon reviewed the rules under Pa.R.C.P. 213(b) regarding the severance of claims and noted that, while the compensatory damages claims that are recoverable from the tortfeasor and the UIM carrier involved the same evidence and issues, the Plaintiffs’ punitive damages claims are “irrelevant to the compensatory damages determinations, and proof of the motorist’s illegal drug use could unfairly prejudice the UIM insurer by inflaming the jurors’ passions or emotions and improperly influencing the compensatory damages awards.”  See Op. at 2.

As such, although Judge Nealon noted that bifurcation of the compensatory damages and the punitive damages claims for trial appeared to be warranted under the circumstances presented, the court left that decision to be made by an assigned trial judge after discovery has been completed the case certified for trial.  

In the meantime, the court found no legitimate basis for severing the tort and UIM claims during the course of pre-trial discovery.  The court also found no basis for staying the litigation process with respect to the UIM claims as requested by the UIM carrier.

Accordingly, the UIM carrier's Motion to Sever and Stay relative to discovery and pre-trial purposes was denied and any ruling on a Motion to Bifurcate the trial was deferred to be decided by a later assigned trial judge.

Anyone wishing to review this decision may click this LINK. 

I send thanks to Attorney Stephen T. Kopko for bringing this case to my attention.   

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