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Kovari v. Brevard Extraditions, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

December 6, 2019

EDWARD KOVARI, Plaintiff,
v.
BREVARD EXTRADITIONS, LLC, d/b/a U.S. Prisoner Transport, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Michael F. Urbanski Chief United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the court on defendants Brevard Extraditions, LLC, Prisoner Transportation Services of America, LLC, and Prisoner Transportation Services, LLC's ("defendants") second motion for bifurcation, ECF No. 116, motion for partial summary judgment, ECF No. 118, and motion to vacate United States Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe's discovery order, ECF No. 134. Plaintiff Edward Kovari ("Kovari") has responded to all motions, and the court heard argument on November 22, 2019. ECF No. 150. For the reasons explained below, the court DENIES defendants' motion to bifurcate, ECF No. 116, and motion for partial summary judgment, ECF No. 118. The court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part defendant's motion to vacate the discovery order. ECF No. 134.

         I.

         The court will first address defendants' second motion to bifurcate, filed on September 6, 2019. The court will then address defendants' motion for partial summary judgment, filed the same day. Finally, the court will address defendant's motion to vacate the discovery order, filed on October 2, 2019.

         A.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b) states that courts may order separate trials on separate issues or claims for a variety of reasons, including convenience, avoiding prejudice, or expediting proceedings. The decision to bifurcate is within the discretion of the district court. Bowie v. Sorrell, 209 F.2d 29, 51 (4th Cir. 1953). "When deciding whether issues should be separately tried, trial courts must ensure that a litigant's constitutional right to a jury is preserved." Shum v. Intel Corp., 499 F.3d 1272, 1276 (Fed. Cir. 2007).

         B.

         Though trial has already been bifurcated into a liability and compensatory damages portion, followed by a punitive damages portion, ECF No. 88, defendants have moved to bifurcate again to separate evidence pertinent to Kovari's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims from evidence pertinent to his tort claims. Defendants request the court order trial be conducted in three separate phases, during which a jury will, in order: (1) decide liability for Kovari's claims in Count II, Count III, and Count IV; (2) decide liability for Kovari's claim in Count I; and (3) address punitive damages, if any. Defendants argue that Kovari's § 1983 claim "is entirely separate, irrelevant, and impermissible when compared to what is required to prove" his state law tort claims. While the theory of respondeat superior may be permissible to establish a cause of action for negligence, gross negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, defendants assert that it cannot be used to impose liability on an inactive defendant (like an employer) pursuant to § 1983. See Jones v. Chapman, No. ELH-14-2627, 2016 WL 4944978, at *4 (D. Md. Sept. 15, 2016) ("[L]ocal governmental bodies may be liable under § 1983 based on the unconstitutional actions of individual defendants, but only if those defendants were executing an official policy or custom of the local government that resulted in a violation of the plaintiffs rights."). To establish a claim under § 1983, on the other hand, Kovari must demonstrate that the defendants had a policy, custom, or practice which caused the violation of his civil rights, Shields v. Prince George's C'nty, No. GJH-15-1736, 2016 WL 4581327, *21-22 (D. Md. Sep. 1, 2016)-something not permissible to establish of breach of a duty of care in a negligence action. See Pullen v. Nickens, 226 Va. 342, 350, 310 S.E.2d 452, 456 (1983) (citing Virginia R. & P. Co. v. Godsey, 117 Va. 167, 168-69, 83 S.E. 1072, 1073 (1915)). For this reason, defendants contend that permitting Kovari to present evidence of both his § 1983 claim and Virginia state law claims in a single trial poses a threat of unfair prejudice and has the potential to confuse the jury.

         Kovari responds that, while a jury could find in Kovari's favor on his state law tort claims based upon an agency theory of liability, he also plans to ask the jury to consider whether defendants themselves, as corporations, are responsible for Kovari's injuries due to their own corporate acts and omissions and to assess punitive damages against defendants accordingly. To do this, Kovari asserts that the jury must be able to consider defendants' conduct as corporate entities, including evidence of their policies and practices, that they directed or authorized their employees' treatment of Kovari, and that they knew at a corporate level that harm would flow from the unlawful conduct alleged. See, e.g., Kaltman v. All Am. Pest Control. Inc., 281 Va. 483, 489, 706 S.E.2d 864, 868 (2011) (recognizing claim for negligence against pesticide company based upon the company's actions in "authorizing and allowing" conduct at issue). The divide between what evidence is admissible for which claim is thus not as clear cut, Kovari asserts, as defendants contend, and bifurcation is ultimately unnecessary and would cause an unjustifiable level of expense and inconvenience.

         The court has already bifurcated this trial once and cannot see the sense in doing so again. Such an action, which would in practice act as a trifurcation, would inconvenience the parties, the witnesses, the jurors, and the court. The court can see no effective way of handling such a trial and sees nothing requiring such a drastic step. Should certain evidence be deemed inadmissible to prove certain of Kovari's claims, a determination that has not and cannot yet be made, the court trusts in the ability of the jurors to follow instructions from the court regarding the purposes for which they may consider certain evidence.

         Defendants' second motion to bifurcate, ECF No. 116, is DENIED.

         II.

         The court will next address defendants' motion for ...


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