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 of 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. The father, who was the driver of the first boat, had taken his 9-year-old son 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, the father steered the boat straight into a second watercraft, the operator of which along with other passengers had tried to honk, scream and wave at the father to get his attention.  Nonetheless, the son’s inner tube crashed broadside into the other boat and he was very seriously injured. Immediately after the collision, the operator of the other boat dove in the water to rescue the son, since he was unconscious and face down in the water. The son suffered serious injuries and commenced an action against his father and the operator of the other boat for $20 million in damages, causing the court to comment:

“The [child], through his litigation guardian, has brought this action claiming damages against the man who appears to have saved his life.”

One of the legal issues was whether the operator of the boat, 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, the operator of the other boat 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 the son’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 the operator of the other boat’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, the court allowed for a quick determination of the other boat operator’s role in what promised to be protracted and costly litigation.  In the end, the court concluded that this was “one of those rare and exceptional cases where bifurcation is warranted in the interest of justice.”