United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division
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.
OPINION AND ORDER
V. ACOSTA, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 ...