This case shows how the plaintiff’s bar is using bifurcation in vessel limitation of liability actions to obtain a jury over the issue of personal injury damages.
The case arises from a personal injury incident on the Mississippi River. The deckhand alleges he was injured when the towing vessel RIVER DIAMOND attempted to move the spud barge TIDEMAR. The deckhand alleges that the barge’s steel spud cracked and injured him when the RIVER DIAMOND was attempting to move the barge. Following the incident, the deckhand sued both vessel owners in state court. In response, both vessel owners filed limitation of liability actions in New Orleans federal court. The deckhand filed claims in both limitation actions.
The deckhand then filed a motion to bifurcate the proceedings asking the federal court to allow him to pursue his personal injury claim in state court if the federal court denied the vessel owner’s request for limitation. The court granted the request for bifurcation and determined that it would try liability, limitation and apportionment of fault in the same federal proceeding and then allow the deckhand to try his damage claim in state court before a jury.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b), a district court “may order a separate trial” of any issue or claim “[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize.” The “rule leaves the decision to order separation of a particular issue in the sound discretion of the court.” That said, “separate trials should be the exception, not the rule” and the Fifth Circuit has “cautioned district courts to bear in mind before ordering separate trials in the same case that the ‘issue to be tried [separately] must be so distinct and separable from the others that a trial of it alone may be had without injustice.” In sum, “courts must consider the justifications for bifurcation in relation to the facts of the individual case, giving particular consideration to the avoidance of prejudice, in order to determine if a separate trial is appropriate.”
Here, the court found that bifurcating trial for the deckhand achieves the purposes of Rule 42(b) because:
Bifurcation can economize and expedite the proceedings. The limitation proceedings require the court to determine first, whether shipowner liability exists, and second, whether the shipowner had privity or knowledge of relevant acts of negligence or unseaworthiness. These inquiries, the court found, require a more limited inquiry than it would in a trial that also included quantifying the deckhand’s personal injury damages.
Further, as liability issues overlap in the two limitation proceedings, the court can coordinate discovery on liability and limitation to promote an expedited pretrial schedule and trial. The deckhand’s personal injury damages, on the other hand, involve separate questions such as medical condition and scope of damages.
Resolving the limitation issues first will allow the court to decide the core issues driving the litigation expeditiously. And, once those issues are resolved, the need for a trial on damages may be eliminated or reduced.
“Perhaps more importantly,” bifurcation is warranted “to avoid prejudice by preserving” the deckhands right to seek a jury trial on damages if limitation is denied.
The vessel owners argued bifurcation was not appropriate because the deckhand did not provide a stipulation that he would not seek to enforce a damage award greater than the value of the vessels until the right to limitation is determined by the court. The vessel owners also argued it was not established whether or not the deckhand was a Jones Act seaman. The court rejected both concerns noting that no stipulation was needed since under the proposed bifurcation the deckhand would not try his damages in state court until after the limitation of liability issues were tried. Further, the court noted whether or not the deckhand qualified as a Jones Act seaman was not dispositive to the issue of bifurcation.
In sum, the court determined that the parties would try liability and limitation of liability in New Orleans federal court and then the deckhand would be permitted to proceed to state court to try his personal injury damage claim.
The case citation for this case is In the matter of the complaint of Diamond B Industries et al, Civil Action No. 2:22-cv-00127 (EDLA September 30, 2022). A publicly available copy of the decision can be viewed through the following link:
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