Plaintiffs’ Motion to Sever Brake Defendants’ Third-Party Complaint Denied

U.S. District the court for the Western District of Kentucky, April 2, 2021

Plaintiff Jack Papineau and his wife sued manufacturers of products that allegedly contained asbestos following Mr. Papineau’s mesothelioma diagnosis. Remaining defendant Brake Supply sued three other manufacturers of products that Brake Supply claims are liable for some or all damages that the court may award the plaintiffs on theories of common-law indemnification and statutory apportionment. The plaintiffs, fearing that the third-party defendants will complicate and slow the plaintiffs’ case against Brake Supply, have asked the court to sever or bifurcate Brake Supply’s third-party claims.

The court examined Rules 14, 21, and 42(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which authorize trial judges to consider whether two separate lawsuits (severance) or a single trial held in two distinct stages (bifurcation) would be more efficient than a single proceeding and trial. Courts typically examine efficiency in a pragmatic manner that emphasizes whether “common questions” would pervade separate proceedings. In this matter, those common questions include who and what caused Mr. Papineau’s injuries. The court found that the underlying common questions pervade all the claims and defenses at issue.

The plaintiffs argued that the length of discovery, risk of jury confusion, and cost of litigation will cause prejudice if the third-party manufacturers remain in this case alongside Brake Supply. However, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure grant trial courts wide discretion regarding whether to bifurcate or sever proceedings. The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating that “severance is required to avoid prejudice or confusion and to promote the ends of justice.” When considering whether to bifurcate a trial, a court should consider “the potential prejudice to the parties, the possible confusion of the jurors, and the resulting convenience and economy.  Further, the court noted that severance or bifurcation was the exception, rather than the rule.

Such a determination is a fact-specific inquiry. The court found that the plaintiffs’ arguments were general and speculative, and that the plaintiffs had not shown that bifurcation or severance would meaningfully accelerate and simplify this case. All of the factors considered by the court—whether the claims arise out of the same transaction or occurrence, whether the claims present common questions of law or fact, whether severance would facilitate settlement of the claims or judicial economy, whether severance would avoid prejudice, whether separate claims require different witnesses and documentary proof—swung in favor of the case remaining intact, rather than bifurcated or severed.

When determining whether bifurcation was appropriate, the court further found that the plaintiffs have not carried their burden of demonstrating that potential economy, convenience, and confusion warrant separate phases for this proceeding. The court concluded that bifurcation or severance would hinder, rather than help, overall judicial economy. To facilitate judicial economy and avoid multiplying proceedings on common fact questions arising out of the same occurrences, the court denied the plaintiffs’ motion to sever or bifurcate Brake Supply’s third-party claims.

Read the full decision here.