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Court News Ohio

ODOT Not Liable for Decisions About Highway Improvements

Image of a close-up view of the illuminated yellow light in a traffic signal (edwardolive/THINKSTOCK)

Traffic signal upgrades at a Pike County intersection did not make ODOT liable in a teen’s 2009 death.

Image of a close-up view of the illuminated yellow light in a traffic signal (edwardolive/THINKSTOCK)

Traffic signal upgrades at a Pike County intersection did not make ODOT liable in a teen’s 2009 death.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that the state’s transportation agency is not liable in the death of a teenage girl killed in an automobile accident on a public highway in Pike County.

In a 4-3 decision, the Court explained that the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is immune from liability based on its choices whether to improve an existing highway, which parts of the highway to improve, and what type of improvements it will make. When implementing its decisions for highway improvements, though, ODOT does have a duty to make sure its actions align with its current construction standards, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote for the Court. If ODOT fails to meet those requirements, the agency may be subject to liability.

However, this appeal fails because it attacks ODOT’s judgments about the type of improvements that were made to the highway, not the agency’s execution of the decisions, the Court concluded.

The ruling reverses the judgment of the Tenth District Court of Appeals and returns the case to the trial court for additional proceedings.

Case Background
Amber Risner was riding in a vehicle with friends in September 2009 at the intersection of State Routes 220 and 32. The vehicle she was in crashed with a tractor-trailer, and Risner was killed in the collision.

Her parents, Paul and Catherine Risner, filed a lawsuit against ODOT, claiming negligent design and maintenance of the intersection.

When the intersection was constructed, there were no traffic signals. In 2002 and 2005, ODOT added advance-warning signs and red and yellow flashing lights at the intersection in response to safety concerns.

In a 2012 summary judgment, the Court of Claims, which handles civil actions against state agencies, concluded that ODOT was not negligent for failing to place a three-light traffic signal at the intersection. ODOT’s guidelines at the time the intersection was built did not require a three-light signal and the later installation of the flashing lights did not violate the agency’s standards in 2002 and 2005, the court determined.

In a second summary judgment later that year on a different claim, the Court of Claims ruled ODOT had no duty to upgrade the intersection to current requirements when it placed the flashing lights there because that installation was maintenance, rather than an improvement.

On appeal, though, the Tenth District reversed. The appellate court decided the flashing lights were instead an improvement and, therefore, ODOT had a duty to upgrade the intersection to modern standards. The agency appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Majority’s Reasoning
In today’s ruling, the Supreme Court first noted that it did not analyze whether the changes to the intersection were maintenance or an improvement because ODOT did not challenge the Tenth District’s determination that the flashing lights were an improvement.

Justice Lanzinger then described the “discretionary-function doctrine,” which means “the state cannot be sued for its legislative or judicial functions or the exercise of an executive or planning function involving the making of a basic policy decision that is characterized by the exercise of a high degree of official judgment or discretion.”

“[I]t is clear that in this case, ODOT made three decisions protected by the discretionary-function doctrine: (1) its decision to improve a particular portion of the intersection, (2) its decision not to improve other portions of the intersection, and (3) its decision regarding what type of improvement — i.e., advance-warning signs and red and yellow flashing lights — to make to the intersection,” Justice Lanzinger wrote. “Each of these decisions entailed the exercise of a planning function involving the making of a basic policy decision characterized by the exercise of a high degree of official judgment and discretion.”

As a result, ODOT has immunity from liability for any damages stemming from these choices, the Court concluded. The Court also noted that the agency’s decision to improve one part of a highway does not trigger a responsibility to upgrade other portions of the highway.

Justice Lanzinger emphasized that ODOT would not be free from liability, however, when it is negligent in implementing its choices.

“ODOT has a duty to properly implement its discretionary decisions,” she explained. “It may be subject to liability if it fails to abide by current construction standards or otherwise acts negligently in executing a decision to improve an existing highway.”

However, this case does not contest ODOT’s execution of its decisions, but instead challenges the choices themselves, and the agency is immune from liability for those judgments, the Court stated.

Justices’ Votes
Joining the majority were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Sharon L. Kennedy.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Judith L. French and William M. O’Neill.

Dissent’s Perspective
Justice Pfeifer reasoned that ODOT made one decision – to improve the intersection – and an intersection consists of more than one road. In his view, ODOT cannot improve some parts of an intersection and not the other parts, or meet safety standards for one portion but not the others.

“ODOT undertook the project of improving the intersection, not improving one discrete part of one highway,” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “The entire intersection was the object of ODOT’s improvement in this case; ODOT added a flashing traffic signal that affected travel on both highways (a yellow flashing light for traffic moving east and west on State Route 32 and a red flashing light for traffic moving north and south on State Route 220). That improvement triggered ODOT’s duty to conform the improvement of the intersection to the [agency’s] requirements … applicable at the time the improvement was made, including the … requirements on intersection sight distance.”

“Whether to upgrade an intersection is part of ODOT’s discretionary function,” he continued. “But it is not within the discretion of ODOT to ignore its own standards once it does undertake a highway improvement.”

2014-0862. Risner v. Ohio Dept. of Transp., Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-4443.

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