Legal Memorandum: Separate Trials in MA

Issue: Under the laws of Massachusetts, does a judge commit error by bifurcating the liability and damage phases of a trial?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Bifurcate a hearing; Discretion; Avoid prejudice or in the interest of expedition and economy
Jurisdiction: Massachusetts
Cited Cases: 16 Mass. App. Ct. 525
Cited Statutes: Mass. R. Civ. P. 42(b), (d)
Date: 10/01/2000

When reviewing a decision of the trial court that was within the trial court’s sound discretion, the higher court "gives great deference to a judge’s decision," and reverses only if it "rests on whimsy, caprice, or arbitrary or idiosyncratic notions."  Boulter-Hedley v. Boulter, 429 Mass. 808, 811 (1999) (quoting Bucchiere v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., 396 Mass. 639, 642 (1986)).  A judge’s decision to bifurcate a hearing into a liability phase and a damages phase, even though it was made midstream, will not be considered an abuse of discretion and his or her decision should not be reversed.

According to the Massachusetts Rule of Civil Procedure,

"[t]he court, in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice, or when separate trials will be conducive to expedition and economy, may order a separate trial . . . of any claim . . . or of any separate issue." 


Mass. R. Civ. P. 42(b), (d).  The Rule is "devoted to the convenience of adjudication, the avoidance of prejudice and the interests of expedition and economy as dictated by the characteristics and elements of proof of the claims themselves," Roddy & McNulty Ins. Agency, Inc. v. A.A. Proctor & Co., 16 Mass. App. Ct. 525, 528 (1983)—questions that are characteristically within the trial judge’s discretion.  For example, in Valley Stream Teachers Fed. Credit Union v. Commissioner of Banks, 376 Mass. 845, 860-61 (1978), the court reasoned that because the facts in dispute […]

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