7/29/2021Ohio Supreme Court To Decide Homeowner Liability For Damage To Car
Driver paralyzed after hitting reinforced roadside mailbox takes lawsuit against homeowner to the Ohio Supreme Court.
By Richard Diamond
The highest court in Ohio is set to decide whether a homeowner with a reinforced mailbox is liable for the damages caused after a pickup truck smashed into that mailbox. Cletus Snay was driving to work on Young Road in Bellvue, Ohio, on December 19, 2016, when he hit a patch of black ice and swerved into the mailbox belonging to Matthew Burr. Unlike an ordinary mailbox that breaks apart on impact, Burr's was reinforced in such a way that Snay's Ford F-250 overturned on impact, causing a spinal injury that left Snay paralyzed.
Burr was tired of vandals destroying his mailbox, so he attached the mailbox to an eight-inch diameter metal post that he buried three feet into concrete, ensuring it would not be knocked over again. Snay's attorney insisted that taking this extraordinary step made Burr liable for what followed.
"The law has thus recognized that property owners cannot set traps to protect their property against petty theft or vandalism, a principle exemplified in the spring gun cases," attorney Kathleen J. St. John argued. "There is no reason why a similar principle should not govern the determination of duty when the property owner consciously constructs an unyielding mailbox post, knowing his method deviates from guidelines meant to protect errant motorists, but rejecting those guidelines in favor of protecting his mailbox against vandalism. Mailbox posts are replaceable, but science has yet to discover a means of reversing quadriplegia."
Neither the Huron County Court of Common Pleas nor the state Court of Appeals found this argument persuasive. The appellate majority reasoned that the homeowner cannot be held responsible for what happens to someone who leaves the road, and that drivers need to be prepared since black ice is common in winter. Judge Christine M. Mayle, however, disagreed with her colleagues, saying Burr ignored recommendations from the post office designed to maximize safety. Douglas G. Leak, Burr's attorney, asked the high court to affirm the lower court decisions.
"In a long line of cases, this court has repeatedly and consistently addressed the same legal issue presented here," Leak wrote. "Does the owner of an off-road object owe a duty to an errant motorist who fails to maintain control of his or her vehicle, strays outside the ordinary course of travel and strikes the off-road object? On that issue, this court has repeatedly and consistently held that no duty is owed."
The high court justices heard arguments by teleconference last month and will likely issue a ruling before the end of the year.