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Fetzer v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

November 21, 2016



          John Robert Blakey United States District Judge

         On July 6, 2016, Defendant Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (“Wal-Mart”) filed a motion to bifurcate trial in the subject case on the issues of liability and damages. Def.'s Mot. Bifurcate [339]. Plaintiffs Mary and Edward Fetzer oppose the motion. See Pls.' Resp. Def.'s Mot. Bifurcate [352]. As explained more fully below, bifurcation decisions are fact dependent and subject to the Court's discretion. In ascertaining whether bifurcation is appropriate, the Court must first determine if separate trial phases would avoid prejudice to a party or promote judicial economy. Next, the Court must be satisfied that the decision to bifurcate does not unfairly prejudice the non-moving party. Finally, separate trials must not be granted if doing so would violate the Seventh Amendment. Here, a trial bifurcated between liability and damage phases that proceeds before the same jury maximizes the potential for judicial economy and removes undue prejudice towards Defendant, but does not unfairly impair Plaintiffs or implicate Seventh Amendment concerns. As a result, Defendant's motion is granted.

         I. Background

         A. Facts

         At approximately 7:40 p.m. on March 5, 2013, Plaintiff Mary Fetzer arrived at the Crystal Lake, Illinois Wal-Mart to pick up a prescription. Mem. Op. and Order [280] 17. It was snowing outside and had snowed for most of the day. Id. Ms. Fetzer entered the Wal-Mart and walked directly to the pharmacy pick-up counter, where she learned that her medication was not ready. Id. Ms. Fetzer began to browse the pharmacy department as she waited for her prescription. While in the cough and cold aisle, Ms. Fetzer fell and sustained substantial injuries. Id.

         B. Issues Surrounding Liability

         Pleadings in the subject case indicate that liability will be strongly contested and will center upon two complex subjects: (1) the Crystal Lake Wal-Mart's roof; and (2) Ms. Fetzer's prior medical history.

         1. Wal-Mart Store's Roof

         Ms. Fetzer claims that her fall was caused by water that fell from a roof leak. Mem. Op. and Order [280] 19-21. In support of this claim, Plaintiffs intend to present testimony from employees and customers that flaws in the Crystal Lake Wal-Mart roof were well known. Id. at 24-26. Moreover, according to one of Plaintiffs' experts, the membrane comprising the roof, Thermoplastic Polyolefin (“TPO”), was prone to failure. Pls.' Resp. Def.'s Mot. Bifurcate [352] Ex. 1 at 4. Plaintiffs claim that Defendant failed to effectively repair these deficiencies, monitor floor conditions during inclement weather, or warn customers of the likelihood of slip hazards. Mem. Op. and Order [280] 27-29.

         While Defendant acknowledges that the Crystal Lake Wal-Mart roof experienced defects prior to March 5, 2013, it maintains there is no credible evidence of a leak at the specific time and place of Ms. Fetzer's fall. Def.'s Mot. Bifurcate [339] 1. Moreover, one of Defendant's experts opines that, given the specific angle and makeup of the roof, it is unlikely that water traveling through an old leak would flow to the pharmacy aisle where the accident occurred. Def.'s Reply Supp. Mot. Bifurcate [363] Ex. 1 at 7.

         2. Ms. Fetzer's Prior Medical History

         In addition to claiming that the roof and floor were adequately maintained, Defendant is expected to argue that Ms. Fetzer's fall was not precipitated by water, but rather pharmaceutical intoxication and/or withdrawal. See generally Def.'s Reply Supp. Mot. Bifurcate [363] Ex. 6. According to Defendant, Ms. Fetzer's medical records indicate high levels of benzodiazepine use in the weeks preceding her fall. Id. at 14-15. Consequently, Defendant claims Ms. Fetzer was “severely chemically/pharmacologically affected” on the evening of March 5, 2013, which led to a loss of consciousness that resulted in her collapse. Id.

         Defendant believes this medical evidence is buttressed by expert biomechanical analysis. Def.'s Reply Supp. Mot. Bifurcate [363] Ex. 3. Defendant proffers that Ms. Fetzer's alleged brain and skull injuries, combined with the lack of injury to other parts of her body, is “biomechanically inconsistent” with the injuries expected from a conscious fall. Id. at 10.

         Plaintiffs believe that Defendant's claims on this subject are based upon speculative expert testimony and faulty inferences. Pls.' Resp. Def.'s Mot. Bifurcate [352] 5-6.

         C. Issues Surrounding Damages

         Regarding damages, Ms. Fetzer claims significant physical injuries, including a right temporal fracture, subarachnoid hemorrhage, and subdural hemorrhage. Def.'s Mot. Bifurcate [339] 4. According to Defendant, Ms. Fetzer has received ongoing treatment from numerous medical facilities and health care providers, and claims to be completely disabled as a result of her fall. Id. Plaintiffs have also retained damages experts to testify that Ms. Fetzer cannot live independently or engage in competitive employment, and will require ongoing future medical care for the rest of her life. Id. Ms. Fetzer's claimed past medical bills exceed $520, 645.71, and Plaintiffs expect future care to cost between $12, 525, 700 and $16, 425, 000. Id.

         Additionally, Plaintiffs seek punitive damages for what they deem “willful and wanton misconduct” on the part of Defendant. First Am. Compl. [64] 4-5. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant knew that the Crystal Lake Wal-Mart's roof created an unreasonably dangerous condition that jeopardized its customers' safety, yet consciously disregarded the apparent risk by failing to take corrective action. Id.

         In response, Defendant claims that Ms. Fetzer possesses a “truly remarkable past medical history” that involves severe pre-existing cognitive, physical, and emotional impairments. Def.'s Reply Supp. Mot. Bifurcate [363] Ex. 6 at 15. Defendant believes that a portion of Ms. ...

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