March 24, 2021

Ninth Circuit affirms district court's bifurcation of punitive damages trial (Phanpradith v. Griego)

In California state court, defendants have a statutory right to request bifurcation in punitive damages trials.  (See Civil Code section 3295, subsection (d).)  The statute provides that the plaintiff cannot present evidence of the defendant's financial condition until after the jury finds that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or fraud.  

Federal law does not require such bifurcation, but leaves it to the discretion of the district court. In this prisoner's civil rights case in federal court, the district court exercised its discretion to bifurcate a punitive damages trial after the plaintiff attempted to introduce evidence about a prison official's income before the plaintiff had established liability for punitive damages. 

When the prisoner challenged that bifurcation order on appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed in an unpublished memorandum disposition, finding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in ordering because such financial evidence could have been confusing to the jury when the plaintiff had not yet established entitlement to punitive damages.