Case Law Updates – Statutory Immunity and Damages Caps for Ohio Political Subdivisions

Subject to statutory exception, political subdivisions in Ohio are immune from tort liability.  In the recent case of Kinderdine v. Mahoning Cty. Bd. of Dev. Disabilities, 7th Dist. Mahoning No. 14 MA 0174, 2016-Ohio-4815, MRR attorneys Todd Raskin, Carl Cormany, and Frank Scialdone successfully argued on appeal that our political subdivision clients were not subject to any statutory exceptions, and therefore were immune from liability under R.C. 2744.02(A)(1).

The case stemmed from a drowning at the swimming pool of one of our clients.  Plaintiff, the estate of decedent, argued that the decedent’s injuries were caused by our client’s negligence and a physical defect on our client’s property, as R.C. 2744.02(B)(4) requires a plaintiff to prove that the injury was caused by both negligence and an on-site physical defect in order to extinguish the immunity granted under R.C. 2744.02(A)(1).  Plaintiff alleged two defects – that the pool cover was not covering the pool and that a door leading to the pool was faulty.  However, case law is clear that the failure to use an available safety device (pool cover) does not constitute a physical defect.  As such, plaintiff had to rely on the allegation that the faulty door caused the decedent’s death.

The Court in Kinderdine ruled that while there was evidence the door was faulty, the door itself did not cause decedent’s death, as the decedent was not hit or trapped by the door, and thus, the exception in R.C. 2744.02(B)(4) did not lift the grant of immunity set forth in R.C. 2744.02(A)(1).  The court’s ruling is an important decision for our political subdivision clients, as it makes clear that in order to overcome the immunity granted by R.C. 2744.02(A)(1), a plaintiff must prove that the physical defect on a political subdivision’s property actually caused the plaintiff’s injury, not simply that the defect somehow contributed to the injury.

In another recent case, Jones v. MetroHealth Med. Ctr., 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 102916, 2016-Ohio-4858, the Eighth District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s reduction of a jury award against a political subdivision by almost $9 million pursuant to R.C. 2744.05(B)(1), which deducts the amount of benefits a plaintiff receives from a collateral source from any damages awarded against the political subdivision, and R.C. 2744.05(C)(1), which caps non-economic damages at $250,000 per plaintiff in all tort actions other than wrongful death.

In Jones, a public hospital was sued for medical malpractice after plaintiff’s son was born with cerebral palsy and other developmental disorders.  A jury awarded $6 million total in non-economic damages, but pursuant to R.C. 2744.05(C)(1), the trial court lowered the damages to $500,000 ($250,000 for plaintiff and $250,000 for her son, also a plaintiff) and the Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting plaintiffs’ argument that R.C. 2744.05 violated her constitutional rights and re-affirming the constitutionality of R.C. 2744.05.

The Jones case also affirmed the lowering of plaintiffs’ economic damages from $8.5 million to just over $5 million, affirming the trial court’s ruling that because all of the son’s past medical bills were paid by Medicaid and Social Security (collateral sources), the hospital was entitled to a complete setoff under R.C. 2744.05(B)(1).  As for future economic damages for ongoing medical care, plaintiffs’ damages were lowered by nearly $3 million, as it was undisputed that the son would qualify for medical insurance under the Affordable Care Act until he became eligible for Medicare and that Medicare would pay all future medical expenses from that point forward.  While the attorneys at MRR did not act as legal counsel for the defendants in Jones, the court’s ruling is nonetheless an important reminder of the financial protections our firm is able to employ on behalf of our political subdivision clients.  For any questions about other implications of R.C. 2744 or political subdivision tort liability and immunity in general, please contact the attorneys at Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder Co., L.P.A.

Todd R. Raskin

Carl E. Cormany

Frank H. Scialdone

MRR News Alert – U.S. Supreme Court: Traffic Stops Cannot Be Overly Prolonged Or Go Beyond Their Mission

The U.S. Supreme Court held that absent reasonable suspicion, the extension of a police traffic stop to conduct a dog-sniff violates the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable seizures. Reversing the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court held that a traffic stop becomes unlawful when it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket.

In Rodriguez v. The United States, No. 13-9972, a canine officer stopped a motorist (Rodriguez) for driving on a highway shoulder in violation of Nebraska state law. After the officer completed everything related to the stop, the officer requested the motorist’s permission to walk his K-9 around the vehicle. The motorist refused and the officer detained him for seven or eight additional minutes while his dog searched for drugs. The dog found drugs. After being indicted on federal drug charges, the motorist moved to suppress the drugs seized from the vehicle because the officer had prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that prolonging the stop for the dog sniff was only a de minimus (or minimal) intrusion into the motorist’s Fourth Amendment rights and was therefore permissible.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed, finding that the extension of the traffic stop violated the Constitution because it was unreasonable. The Court explained that the authority for the seizure ended when the tasks tied to the traffic infraction are, or reasonably should have been, completed. If the roadside detention extends beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing the ticket, the traffic stop becomes unlawful. The Court found that the mission of issuing a traffic ticket included checking the driver’s license, investigating the existence of outstanding warrants, and reviewing the motorist’s proof of insurance and registration documents. These checks go to the same objective as enforcing the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated responsibly and safely. The Court explained that a dog-sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission. The Court found that on-scene investigation into other crimes is a departure from the officer’s traffic control mission.

Ultimately, the issue of whether the motorist’s detention will be found lawful was not completely resolved either. The Supreme Court found that the Eighth District did not review whether the district court properly determined the dog-sniff was not independently supported by individualized suspicion. The Court found that that question remains open for consideration of further action.

The Supreme Court made clear that traffic stops have to be reasonably short unless there is an independent, reasonable suspicion of another crime that allows further investigation and prolonging the traffic stop. Officers simply cannot prolong a traffic stop just to perform a dog-sniff drug search without otherwise having independent reasonable suspicion.

For more information on this subject matter or other appellate topics, please contact John T. McLandrich and Frank H. Scialdone.