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Patten v. Washington County

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

June 16, 2017

MELISSA VAN PATTEN, Personal Representative for the Estate of Melinda Van Patten, Plaintiff,
WASHINGTON COUNTY, by and through the Washington County Sheriff's Office, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Melissa Van Patten (“Plaintiff”) brings this lawsuit against defendant Washington County (“the County”). Plaintiff's sole remaining claim is for statutory liability under Oregon law. The County moves for separate trials of the liability and damages issues in this lawsuit. (ECF No. 62.) The court finds this motion appropriate for disposition without oral argument, pursuant to Local Rule of Civil Procedure 7-1(d)(1). Upon review of the parties' arguments and the evidence that Plaintiff intends to introduce at trial, the court denies the County's motion.[1]


         In 2013, Sheriff's Deputies Dylan Leach and Leanne Stoneberg and Reserve Deputy Melinda Purvis (collectively, “the Deputies”), employees of the County, responded to a domestic-violence call at the home of Melinda Van Patten and Ken Van Patten. Van Patten v. Leach, No. 3:15-cv-0891-AC, 2016 WL 5928801, at *1 (D. Or. Oct. 11, 2016). The Deputies did not arrest Ken Van Patten. Id. at * 2. On the following day, Ken Van Patten shot Melinda Van Patten twice, killing her, before committing suicide. Id. at * 1. Plaintiff, as personal representative of Melinda Van Patten's estate, initiated this lawsuit against the Deputies and the County, alleging claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Oregon tort law. (First Am. Compl. (ECF No. 1) ¶¶ 32-72.) The court granted partial summary judgment against Plaintiff. Van Patten, 2016 WL 5928801, at * 1. Plaintiff's only remaining claim is for statutory liability under ORS § 133.055, which mandates arrest under specific domestic-violence-related circumstances. The court held a scheduling conference on January 5, 2017, setting dates for trial and pretrial document filings. (ECF Nos. 59, 60.) Plaintiff's remaining claim is scheduled for a six-day jury trial, beginning on July 10, 2017. Initial pretrial documents were due on June 5, 2017. (Jury Trial Management Order (ECF No. 60), at 2.) The County did not raise the issue of bifurcation at the January 5 scheduling conference, or at any time prior to filing its motion to bifurcate on May 25, 2017. (ECF No. 62.) Plaintiff opposes the motion. (ECF No. 88.)

         Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 42(b), “the court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues, claims, crossclaims, or third-party” for “convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize” the proceedings. The drafters of the Federal Rules did not intend the routine bifurcation of trials. Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b) advisory committee's note to 1966 amendment. The moving party has the burden to prove that bifurcation is appropriate. Benson Tower Condo. Owners Ass'n v. Victaulic Co., 150 F.Supp.3d 1184, 1208 (D. Or. 2015) (Simon, J.) (citing Clark v. I.R.S., 772 F.Supp.2d 1265, 1269 (D. Haw. 2009)). The court has broad, discretionary authority to bifurcate claims or issues. Hirst v. Gertzen, 676 F.2d 1252, 1261 (9th Cir. 1982).


         Few factual issues remain in this lawsuit. The County's liability turns first on what the Deputies knew when they decided to not arrest Ken Van Patten, and second on whether the facts known to the Deputies created probable cause to arrest Ken Van Patten under ORS § 133.055. Because Plaintiff's remaining claim asserts statutory liability, the only defenses available to the County are those available under the statute. See Nearing v. Weaver, 295 Or. 702, 709-10 (1983) (holding that, in a statutory-liability action, the only available defenses are those defenses available under the statute). Accordingly, any evidence must be relevant to what the Deputies knew when they responded to the Van Patten residence on the day in question.

         The evidence relevant to damages is similarly limited. Plaintiff brings this claim under Oregon's wrongful-death statute, ORS § 30.020. Under ORS § 30.020(2), Plaintiff may recover only specific categories of damages on behalf of the Estate. Within those statutory limits, Plaintiff seeks damages for Melinda Van Patten's pain and suffering after being shot and before death, for funeral expenses, and for lost earning capacity. (First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 58-59.) Plaintiff also seeks damages for loss to the estate of Melinda Van Patten's companionship, society, and familial presence. (Id. ¶ 60.)

         The narrow remaining issues for trial limit the evidence the parties may offer in the upcoming trial. Nonetheless, the County contends that separating trial on damages and liability is necessary to avoid prejudice and juror confusion. The County relies on two categories of possible evidence to support bifurcation. First, the County suggests that Plaintiff will submit graphic evidence of the violent and gruesome nature of Mrs. Van Patten's murder and Mr. Van Patten's suicide. The County specifically references photographs and documentary evidence providing graphic detail of the murder-suicide. Next, the County argues that Plaintiff will seek to admit evidence of prior domestic-violence incidents within the family, which the Deputies had no knowledge of on the day in question. Such evidence, the County argues, will confuse the jury as to the proper scope of the probable-cause determination under ORS § 133.055. Plaintiff argues that limiting instructions would be sufficient to avoid any prejudice or jury confusion.

         The court has the benefit of the parties' submission to the court of the evidence which they intend to introduce at trial. (See ECF Nos. 69, 74.) The parties filed their proposed exhibits after the County filed the pending motion. In consideration of the previously discussed evidentiary limitations and the evidence which Plaintiff intends to introduce at trial, the court concludes that bifurcation is unnecessary. The potential for prejudice and juror confusion which the County suggests is largely addressed by the limitation of relevance and the omission from Plaintiff's proffered exhibits of the most prejudicial potential evidence.

         I. Undue Prejudice.

         The County first argues that Plaintiff will offer graphic evidence of the murder-suicide at the heart of this case, which might cause undue prejudice to the County. The evidentiary submissions by the parties are dispositive of this issue. Although the County identifies graphic photographs and documentary evidence which Plaintiff might seek to admit, Plaintiff did not submit any such evidence in her pretrial filings, (see generally Pl.'s Ex. List (ECF No. 69)), nor will Plaintiff be permitted to amend her exhibit list to do so, because the court's Jury Trial Management Order explicitly warns ...

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