Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd v Aurora Fine Arts Investments Ltd (2012)
A split trial had not been appropriate where a trial on one of two claims, in relation to the authenticity of a painting sold at auction, might not dispose of the action, the cost of two trials would be much greater and, if there were two trials, there was a risk of inconsistencies in assessment of witness evidence.
The appellant auction house (X) appealed against a master's refusal of its application for a split trial in a claim by the respondent buyer (Y) in respect of a painting bought at auction. Y bought a painting that it believed was painted by a particular Russian artist. The painting's authenticity was later questioned, and Y claimed damages for breach of a warranty and for X's negligence in failing to appreciate that the attribution of the painting to that artist was wrong or doubtful. The master refused X's application to split the trial to hear the breach of warranty claim first, stating that a trial of all the issues would enable the judge to assess the evidence and background and to hear what X's director of Russian paintings (T) thought about the painting. He held that the whole matter should be dealt with by one judge at one hearing. X argued that the master had failed to recognise the need to balance the competing factors for and against a split trial and had been mistaken in thinking that it would be desirable for the judge in the warranty claim to hear what T thought of the painting, as his non-expert views were irrelevant.
The master had been fully alive to the need to balance the competing factors, but he had been mistaken in his view that T's evidence of fact was of importance to the authenticity of the painting for the purpose of the warranty claim. However, a split trial would not be ordered. A split trial could lead to a substantial saving in the length of the trial and pre-trial work, but the trial of the warranty claim would not necessarily dispose of the negligence claim. If it transpired that there were two separate trials the costs would be much greater. If there were two trials T and any experts would have to give evidence at both and the judge would have to assess their evidence without hearing all of the evidence, and there was a risk of inconsistencies. The overlap of evidence made it desirable that the claims be heard by the same judge at the same time, and justice was likely to be better served by one trial.