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Ohio Supreme Court Clears Government in Fatal Accident
Ohio Supreme Court limits government liability for fatal car accidents caused by negligent municipal workers.

Justice Maureen OConnor
The Supreme Court of Ohio in a ruling yesterday limited the liability of municipalities when their negligence causes a fatal automobile accident. On January 24, 2004, a high school student was killed in Miami Township after his car hit black ice left over from firefighter training exercises.

On that day, the township fire department deliberately set buildings on fire so that firefighters could practice their techniques. One of buildings involved had been located near a steep driveway. Excess water ran down that driveway and onto Bear Creek Road, crossing the location of a sharp right-hand turn. On that cold winter evening, firefighters poured salt on the wet road, assuming that would be enough to prevent ice from forming. Firefighters and police claim they saw no ice when the road was checked at 7:30pm and 9pm.

But by 10pm, sixteen-year-old driver Christopher Howard approached the curve at 60 MPH. Passenger Robyn Butler testified that Howard had just previously taken a similar curve at a similar speed. The car hit the ice, spun out of control, and struck a tree, killing Howard. Police on the scene noted the ice and that the water's source was clearly the driveway used for firefighter training. Accident reconstruction expert Fred Lickert testified that in ideal conditions, Howard's car could have taken the curve at 70.9 MPH. The road has a speed limit of 55 MPH.

Howard's family sued, claiming the township's negligence was the direct cause of the fatal accident. Lower courts split on the question and the appeal made it to the state's highest court.

"We begin with the understanding that political subdivisions are not liable generally for injury or death to persons in connection with a township's performance of a governmental or proprietary function," Justice Maureen O'Connor wrote for the 5-2 majority. "An exception for immunity exists for injuries or death caused by a township's 'negligent failure to keep public roads in repair and other negligent failure to remove obstructions from public roads.'"

The question then turned on whether the black ice on the road constituted an "obstruction" according to the state law. The court turned to the dictionary definition of the word and insisted that ice did not constitute an obstruction. Further, the court argued that the legislature was very specific in its intention to limit the government's liability for its own negligence.

"We conclude that for purposes of R.C. 2744.02, an 'obstruction' must be an obstacle that blocks or clogs the roadway and not merely a thing or condition that hinders or impedes the use of the roadway or that may have the potential to do so," Justice O'Connor wrote.

Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer disagreed with the ruling on the ground that the word obstruction was properly understood to mean something that hinders or impedes safe passage on a road.

"Reading the statute in this manner also comports with common sense," the chief justice wrote in a dissenting opinion. "Under the majority's interpretation of the word 'obstruction,' Miami Township could be liable if it negligently leaves a large oil drum in one lane of a public road, but not if it negligently leaves a large quantity of oil on the road, because the former would block the road and the latter would not."

Source: PDF File Howard v. Miami Township Fire Divison (Supreme Court of Ohio, 6/18/2008)

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