A man was operating a golf cart around a turn when he was confronted by an oncoming golf cart operated by an employee of the golf club. The man was forced to swerve in an attempt to avoid a collision, and his golf cart struck a metal guardrail, pinning his left leg between his golf cart and the guardrail. The injured man sued the golf club to recover damages for sustained injuries, alleging that its employee was negligent in the operation and control of his golf cart and that such negligence caused the man to sustain injuries to his left leg. In its Answer, defendant denied that the employee was negligent in the operation and control of his golf cart and asserted that the man's injuries were caused by his own negligence. At his deposition, the employee testified that plaintiff was operating his golf cart at a "very high rate of speed" and that he made a wide turn around the corner just prior to the accident.
Plaintiff subsequently moved for a unified trial on the issues of liability and damages, contending that a unified trial was appropriate since medical evidence pertaining to his injuries had an important bearing on the issue of liability. In support of his motion, plaintiff submitted the affidavit of an expert in mechanical engineering, accident reconstruction, and biomechanics. The expert opined that, given the nature of the injuries sustained by plaintiff, he could not have been operating his golf cart at a speed greater than one to three miles per hour at the time of the accident. The lower court granted plaintiff's motion for a unified trial, concluding that the plaintiff's injuries were relevant to how the accident occurred. Defendant appealed.
On appeal, the Second Department explained that a court may order a separate trial of any claim, or of any separate issue for convenience or to avoid prejudice. Accordingly, the Second Department pointed out that when exercising its discretion in deciding whether to conduct a unified trial or a bifurcated trial, a court should determine whether the nature of the alleged injuries is probative of the issue of liability and, furthermore, should also evaluate the relative importance of such evidence to the parties' dispute. In addition, the probative value of such evidence to the issue of liability should be weighed against the degree to which the gravity of such injuries will likely create sympathy for plaintiff and thereby pose a risk of prejudice to defendant.
The Second Department held that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the nature of his injuries had an important bearing on the issue of liability. The Court further held that the expert’s affidavit submitted in support of his motion was conclusory and without probative value since it failed to set forth the reason for the expert's conclusion that the nature of the plaintiff's injuries demonstrated his precise speed at the time of the accident The Court also held that even if the opinion of the plaintiff's expert was probative of the issue of liability, plaintiff failed to demonstrate that his expert's theory could not adequately be proven at the liability phase of a bifurcated trial. The Court reasoned that given the nature and severity of the injuries alleged by plaintiff, the numerous surgeries allegedly necessitated by those injuries, there would be a substantial danger of confusion and prejudice to defendant if the jury were exposed to the full extent of the plaintiff's case on the issue of damages while it was considering the issue of liability.
Furthermore, the Court held that plaintiff failed to allege that his expert, who was not a medical doctor, would have to testify at both phases of a bifurcated trial or that a unified trial would otherwise result in increased judicial efficiency. Accordingly, the Second Department reversed the lower court’s decision and denied the plaintiff's motion for a unified trial on the issues of liability and damages.