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The Bifurcated Trial System

Recently, we discussed how a century old rule barring mention of liability insurance may actually create bias in a jury, favoring a defendant. Now, I’d like to talk about the “bifurcated trial system”, and how this system can actually create jury bias as well.

New York is divided into four judicial departments. Nassau County and Suffolk County fall into the Second Judicial Department. While the rules for conducting trials are generally the same in all departments, there are some important distinctions between each of the judicial departments. The most important difference between departments is the bifurcated trial system, which is utilized in the Second Department.

The concept of bifurcation is simple in personal injury cases. A case is divided into two separate and distinct parts for trial – liability and damages. Each part is tried independently of each other. First, there is a trial on liability (or fault). There are opening arguments, presentation of evidence, closing arguments, jury deliberations and a verdict.

Once a verdict is reached there could be a second trial on damages, but only if the verdict found that the defendant was at fault. If it was determined that the defendant was free of fault the case proceeds no further. If there was a finding of fault on the defendant there is a second trial on damages. Again, there are opening arguments, presentation of evidence, closing arguments, jury deliberations and a verdict.

The rationale for this system is to avoid the waste of judicial resources and cost. The damages portion of a trial can be lengthy. Why do it if there is no fault on the defendant? This system saves time and money.

However, there are some distinct disadvantages of this system for a plaintiff. First, the issue of injury is not allowed to be mentioned in the liability portion of the trial. So a jury will decide a plaintiff’s fate without even knowing the extent of their injuries. This can make a big difference in some cases.

After trying cases for approximately twenty years, I have found that most juries are sympathetic to the defendant in the liability portion of the trial. Often, they seem to be wondering, “Why did you need to drag us down here and take up our time to hear about this accident?” It’s not until after they decide fault that they hear about a plaintiff’s injuries. And that’s precisely when I notice a change in a jury’s demeanor.

The problem is that the jury may never get to hear about a plaintiff’s injuries because of the bifurcated trial system. A trial attorney’s biggest fear is that a jury will decide a case against a plaintiff in the liability phase because they surmise from looking at the plaintiff that he/she is not that hurt and feel bad for the defendant. Additionally, the inconvenience of time that the bifurcated trials can take may cause juries to make bias decisions.

A skilled plaintiff’s attorney can work around the bifurcated system and devise ways of indicating to a jury that the plaintiff’s injuries are in fact severe. Not all attorneys understand the nuances required to get that message across, though. And, if an attorney cannot accomplish this, their client is at a great disadvantage. The defendant’s attorney will certainly take advantage of the fact that Suffolk County and Nassau County juries are generally sympathetic to their clients during the liability phase of the trial.

I strongly feel that this bifurcated trial system presents an issue for plaintiffs in many cases. Yes, the rationale behind it may be sound. But, it’s up to a jury to decide a plaintiff’s fate. And in many instances, they may look at a plaintiff, deem them to be in good health, and take pity on a defendant before even having a chance to know the extent of a plaintiff’s injuries.

Many residents of Long Island, in both Suffolk County and Nassau County, have been furious about the installation of Red Light Cameras at major intersections. We wonder what the purpose of this program was in the first place. According to The Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Agency, “the safety program focused on changing driver behavior at red light intersections through a comprehensive effort involving engineering, education and enforcement.”

But some believe this program has nothing to do with safety. According to an article posted by Newsday on Red Light Cameras, some argue that the program was designed “primarily to bring in revenues to help balance the county budget.” There are conflicting reports on whether or not these Red Light Cameras are truly helping to increase safety. Some intersections with cameras have seen a decrease in accidents, while others have seen a steep increase.

The Statistics

Last year’s report found that:

So, at some intersections with Red Light Cameras, we’re seeing a very transparent increase in accidents. Why is this? What’s creating this increase? Some say it could be an increase in the behavior of distracted driving. Others may believe that this program is scaring people at major intersections, that people are slamming their breaks when the light turns yellow because they are afraid of getting fined. There may not be any surefire way to know if Red Light Cameras are the main reason behind these accidents. But the reports should at least spark speculation and reevaluation.

Has The Timing Of Yellow Lights Been Tampered With?

An article posted by CBS2 on Red Light Cameras elaborates on some statements made by both Long Island residents and County Lawmakers. One Long Island man complained that the duration of the yellow light has been shortened. ““All of a sudden it turned orange, OK, the last second, and it turned red immediately,” said red-light camera ticket recipient Darren Elkins. “So there is no time for you to stop.”” According to the article, Suffolk County Legislator Robert Trotta calls it a trap. ““This is about raising revenue without saying, ‘Oh we’re raising taxes,’””. Trotta is a former police officer.

Trotta isn’t the only County Legislator who believes the duration of yellow lights have shortened. But at the same time, County officials say that yellow lights have not been tampered with.

If they have been shortened, however, to “lay traps” as Trotta believes, Long Island drivers are being presented with a dangerous change they were not made aware of. We have the timing of yellow lights engrained in us as drivers. Most of us know when it’s safer to drive through a yellow light than to stop short. We have to make rash decisions on the road. Making any changes to traffic lights without the public’s knowledge or consent endangers lives.

But this information that the duration has changed, whether true or not, can create paranoia. People may be far too paranoid to run yellow lights (even when it’s safer than stopping) for fear of getting a ticket.

Even so, we’ve seen an increase in accidents at some intersections, and a decrease at others. Again, there’s no surefire way to attribute Red Light Cameras as the primary cause of this increase in accidents. But given that we’ve seen an increase in accidents at intersections with cameras should incentivize County Lawmakers to rethink this program. According to an article posted by News 12 legislators say that they are drafting a bill that would end the program.

No matter what, it’s up to us to pay attention to our driving habits. We must fully stop at stop signs and red lights, obey the “No Turn On Red” rule, and come to a slow stop at yellow lights when possible. The rules of the road were created to make it safe to drive…to save lives. Make it a goal to keep your driving record as clean as can be.