What Is A Unified Trial?
Except in the Bronx, where unified trials are the norm, the general rule is that jury trials are bifurcated, with the issue of liability being decided first, followed by a trial on the issue of damages. However, there are limited circumstances where the plaintiff can ask for and be granted a unified trial. This circumstance generally arises where the issue of damages (i.e. the injuries) are relevant to the issue of liability. The most common scenario is a pedestrian knockdown case, where the defendant is claiming that (a) the pedestrian was never hit by the vehicle or (b) the pedestrian ran into the side of the vehicle as opposed to the front striking the pedestrian. These are common defenses in pedestrian knockdown accidents. In such a case, the presence of a lower leg injury tends to prove that it was the front of the vehicle that struck the pedestrian, rather than the pedestrian running into the side. If you visualize a pedestrian knockdown, it is clear: being struck by the bumper would tend to cause injuries to the ankles, knees, or hips, while a pedestrian running into the side of the vehicle is less likely to cause injuries to these body parts. In a unified trial, the trial judge has tremendous discretion to decide which medical evidence may be offered on the issue of liability, such as hospital records, doctors’ evaluation reports, and MRIs or X-Rays. It is unlikely that evidence of, for example, a shoulder injury is relevant in the example here, as the front bumper would hit the lower extremities of the pedestrian. Evidence of lower extremity injuries is highly relevant to the issue of liability in this example, as it makes a world of difference, for the purposes of establishing liability for causing the accident, whether a pedestrian ran into the side of the vehicle, as the defendant may argue, or whether the pedestrian was indeed struck by the defendant’s front bumper.