Trial Court’s Ability to Sever Claims and Parties

Author: LegalEase Solutions

Introduction

You have asked us to research Michigan law regarding a trial court’s ability to sever claims and parties.  These issues require discussion of:

  1. Michigan Court Rules
  2. Applicable Michigan case law.

Questions Presented

  1. How do Michigan Courts determine whether to grant a motion to sever claims and parties?
  2. What is the standard of review of a trial court’s ruling on a motion to sever?

Short Answers

  1. The trial court has discretion to grant separate trial of cases or issues, but Michigan courts have consistently held that such power should be exercised sparingly, and only upon a most persuasive showing that prejudice to party and/or jury confusion cannot otherwise be avoided.
  2. A trial court’s decision to grant or deny a motion to sever claims will be reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion.

Discussion

The Michigan Court Rule of greatest relevance to our inquiry, MCR 2.505 (“Consolidation; Separate Trials”) states:

  • Consolidation: When actions involving a substantial and

controlling common question of law or fact are pending before

the court, it may

  • order a joint hearing or trial of any or all the matters

in issue in the actions;

  • order the actions consolidated; and

(3) enter orders concerning the proceedings to avoid

unnecessary costs or delay.

  • Separate Trials: For convenience or to avoid prejudice, or

when separate trials will be conducive to expedition and economy,

the court may order a separate trial of one or more claims, cross-

claims, counterclaims, third-party claims, or issues.

Therefore, it is true that the trial court does have authority to sever trials under certain circumstances, in order to avoid prejudice, or to foster convenience and economy.  Hodgins v Times Herald Co. 169 Mich. App. 245, 261; 425 NW2d 522 (1988).  However, Michigan courts have consistently held that a circuit court should sever a trial only upon the “most persuasive showing” that the convenience of all parties and the court requires such a decision.  Department of Treasury v Campbell 161 Mich. App. 526, 532; 411 NW2d 722 (1987); Jemaa v MacGregor Athletic Products 151 Mich. App. 273, 278; 390 NW2d 180 (1986).

It is well-established in Michigan that a trial court’s power to grant separate trials ought to be exercised sparingly, and only upon a demonstration that without separation, the parties will be unacceptably inconvenienced and/or prejudice to a party will be unavoidable.  Kubiak v Hurr 143 Mich. App. 465, 476; 372 NW2d 341 (1985);  Detloff v The Taubman Co., Inc. 112 Mich. App. 308; 315 NW2d 582 (1982); Danyo v Great Lakes Steel Corp., 93 Mich. App. 91; 286 NW2d 50 (1979), lv den 408 Mich. 882 (1980).

However, this is not to say that there are never circumstances under which severance is appropriate, or even necessary.  The rule permitting liberal joinder of actions and claims is intended to achieve trial convenience as well as economy of judicial functions.  But if it is the case that such consolidation will result in prejudice to a substantial right of a party, or in confusion on the part of the jury, the court may, in its discretion, order severance.  Kubiak, supra; Papcum v L.R. Jacobs Construction Co. 95 Mich. App. 746; 291 NW2d 191 (1980) lv den 410 Mich. 853 (1980); People ex rel Director of Conservation v Babcock 38 Mich. App. 336; 196 NW2d 489 (1972).

An additional factor courts will take into consideration when deciding severance requests is whether or not different proofs will be required to establish the different claims being asserted.  In the case of Legendre v Monroe County 234 Mich. App. 708; 600 NW2d 78 (1999), the Michigan Court Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to sever consolidated discrimination claims because it found that different proofs would be necessary to establish each case, that the claims arose from different sets of occurrences, and that the differences were so substantial that the potential for jury confusion and prejudice against the defendants demanded severance.

In the Kubiak case, supra, the trial court denied a defendant’s motion to sever the action against himself from the principal action, determining that the actions did arise from the same series of transactions and events.  Id. at 477.  However, the Court of Appeals rejected the reasoning and reversed, finding that the occurrences giving rise to the claims were not the same, and that the potential for jury confusion that could result from the divergent proofs required severance.

Finally, it is important to note that the standard of review applied to a trial court’s grant of a motion to sever cases or claims is that of abuse of discretion.  Jemaa, supra, at 278.