Court Splits Trial of $20 Million Boating Accident Claim in the “Interests of Justice”

Summer is the season for family vacations, with many people choosing to enjoying time at a cottage. But summer is also the prime season for boating accidents. These can happen in a split second, but the repercussions can be tragic and long-lasting. They may even result in personal injury litigation, which can take years to untangle.

In a boating accident case called Woodbury (Litigation guardian of) v. Woodbury the court focused on the interests of justice to justify splitting or “bifurcating” a complex trial into separate, more manageable issues.

The accident happened during a father-son recreational outing on a lake. Robert, who was the driver of the first boat, had taken his 9-year-old son Nash out do enjoy some “tubing”. This involved Nash being pulled behind Robert’s boat on an inner tube. However, while driving at high speed and with no apparent regard for its direction, Robert steered the boat straight into a second watercraft operated by Lance, who along with other passengers had tried to honk, scream and wave at the oncoming Robert to get his attention.

Nash’s inner tube crashed broadside into Lance’s boat, and he was very seriously injured. Immediately after the collision, Lance dove in the water to rescue Nash, since he was unconscious and face down in the water. As the court observed: “The [child], through his litigation guardian, has brought this action claiming damages against the man who appears to have saved his life.”

That court action included a claim by Nash for $20 million in damages, brought against both his father Robert (who admitted liability and did not defend) and against Lance as well. One of the legal issues was whether Lance – who was uninsured – was also partly liable in negligence for at least some of Nash’s damages, in light of his boat’s position at the time of the collision.

After the case lingered for a time, Lance unsuccessfully brought a motion to have the action against him summarily dismissed. However, in what was a relatively rare procedural move, the court took the opportunity to “bifurcate” the trial, by separating the liability question from the one focused on Nash’s damages. The court observed that the $20 million damages claim would take a good deal of time and require the court to untangle over 1,800 pages of expert medical evidence; in contrast, the question of Lance’s potential liability for the collision was “simple in the extreme” and could be determined in a very short period. There would also be entirely different witnesses needed for the trial of each of these two separate aspects of the case.

In making the ruling – which allowed for a quick determination of Lance’s role in what promised to be protracted and costly litigation – the court concluded that this was “one of those rare and exceptional cases where bifurcation is warranted in the interest of justice.”