Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court to Weigh if Police Liable for Bystander Injuries Caused by Fleeing Suspect During Pursuit

Among Eight Cases Scheduled for Oral Arguments

Image of damaged vehicles after they were involved in an accident (Thinkstock)

The Court will determine if police officer conduct has to be deemed “extreme and outrageous” to be liable for injuries caused by fleeing suspect.

Image of damaged vehicles after they were involved in an accident (Thinkstock)

The Court will determine if police officer conduct has to be deemed “extreme and outrageous” to be liable for injuries caused by fleeing suspect.

A woman seriously injured when a suspected burglar crashed his car into her while fleeing from police in Montgomery County is seeking damages from the government agencies claiming the officers ignored policies restricting high-speed pursuits. So far, two lower courts have ruled the officers are immune from the lawsuit. The Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week to determine if the officers are not at fault because their action were not “extreme or outrageous.”

Miami Township police went to the house where Andrew Barnhart lived after they got a tip from a witness who may have just seen Barnhart steal a television. In Argabrite v. Neer, the department was investigating a series of burglaries in the area and suspected Barnhart. When police confronted him in his grandmother’s driveway, he repeatedly drove backwards into a police sergeant’s vehicle, then fled. Two officers pursued Barnhart separately in their cars. Deputy Chief John DiPietro supervised the pursuit from the police department. A Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office deputy heard about the chase, saw Barnhart’s car coming from the other direction, and started to follow it, and a deputy department sergeant also went searching for Barnhart.

After about seven minutes on six miles of streets and state highways, Barnhart pulled into opposing traffic on State Route 741 just before noon and collided head-on with a vehicle driven by Pamela Argabrite, who was seriously injured. Barnhart died in the crash.

In October 2012, Argabrite filed a lawsuit against the officers seeking damages for her injuries. The defendants claimed they were immune from liability as police department employees based on R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b) and they weren’t the “proximate cause” of the woman’s injuries. They claimed that Barnhart was the proximate cause of the accident.

Argabrite argues the rulings against them were based on prior Ohio appeals court decisions, which they contend makes it nearly impossible to sue police officers for damages resulting from high-speed chases. They state those decisions are contrary to a state law that sets out what must be proven to win a judgment against the police. They are asking the Supreme Court not to follow prior decisions that ruled the conduct of police officers must be extreme or outrageous before it can be deemed the proximate cause of a crash that causes the injury to a bystander hit by the fleeing suspect.

The officers contend the lower standard Argabrite seeks would restrict officers’ attempts to arrest fleeing suspects and would have “a chilling effect” on law enforcement. They also dispute Argabrite’s characterization of the events that day.

Oral Arguments
In addition to the officer immunity case, the Court will hear three other appeals on Tuesday, Feb. 9 and four cases on Wednesday, Feb. 10. The Court’s sessions begin at 9 a.m. at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus. The arguments will be streamed live online at and broadcast live on The Ohio Channel.

Previews Available
Along with the brief descriptions below, the Office of Public Information today released previews of the cases.

Cases for Tuesday, Feb. 9
In Ashtabula County, local residents formed a trust operating as SPIRE, and it built a state-of-the-art multi-sports complex that serves as a designated training site by the U.S. Olympic Committee for USA Track and Field and a Paralympic training site for USA Wheelchair Basketball. In Geneva Area Recreational, Educational, and Athletic Trust v. Joseph W. Testa, Tax Commissioner of Ohio SPIRE is appealing the denial of a real property tax exemption for the complex and vacant surrounding land, claiming it’s a charitable institution entitled to exemption.

A Cleveland man was charged with operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI) and other charges, and disputed the charge telling the court he was angry at the arresting officer, but not intoxicated. The trial judge accepted a no contest plea, then reduced OVI to a violation of Cleveland City ordinance “Physical Control of Vehicle While Under the Influence. In City of Cleveland v. Troussaint D. Jones the city appealed the ruling to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court, and the man now argues the city had no right to appeal the verdict and the appellate court had no right to vacate the verdict.

In a Wood County sting, a man bought two kilograms of cocaine for $58,000 from a confidential police informant. He was convicted for drug possession, and his sentence was elevated to 11 years in prison because the jury found he had more than 100 grams of the drug. The prosecutors in State v. Gonzales argue the law requires weighing the total amount of the substance sold, which would include the drug and any filler materials. However, they assert, the statute doesn’t mandate evidence that there was more than 100 grams of actual cocaine seized for a court to impose the enhanced penalty.

Cases for Wednesday, Feb. 10
A man driving a pickup truck with his child in the back seat was convicted for driving under the influence of drugs and for child endangerment after he rear-ended a woman sitting at a Montgomery County intersection. Police reported that he said he had taken prescribed painkillers that day, but at trial he maintained he was instead experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the accident happened. In State v. Richardson, the state contends that the link between the man’s impairment and the medication was established through his own admission and the police officer’s determination that the man was impaired.

The defense attorney for a Lake County man who admitted to three counts of rape and a prosecutor made a joint recommendation to a trial court that he serve three consecutive sentences. The trial court sentenced him to three eight-year terms for a total of 24 years. In State v. Sergent, the Eleventh District Court of Appeals reversed his sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing, but the prosecutor argues that a sentence based on a joint recommendation can’t be appealed.

A federal court has asked the state’s highest court in Wells Fargo Bank v. Allstate Insurance Company to decide whether arson is a type of vandalism or malicious mischief. After a foreclosure, a home in Poland, Ohio, left vacant for months was damaged by a fire found to have been intentionally started. The insurance company denied a claim from the bank for its losses from the fire because the insurance policy excludes coverage for vandalism or malicious mischief if a home has been abandoned for a certain amount of time. The insurance company argues arson is commonly understood to be vandalism or mischief, so coverage was properly rejected.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office sought to appear and speak on behalf of the state in a community control sanctions violation hearing. The trial judge denied the request stating probation officers represent the state in such hearings. In State v. Heinz, the prosecutor argues the office represents the state in all complaints, suits, and controversies, including sanction violation hearings, unless the law specifies otherwise.