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Court News Ohio

City Not Liable for Accident Caused by Shrubs Blocking View of Stop Sign

Image of a tree-lined two-lane road

Court rules city not liable for accident caused by roadside foliage obstruction that was not on the road.

Image of a tree-lined two-lane road

Court rules city not liable for accident caused by roadside foliage obstruction that was not on the road.

A city is not liable for the failure to remove roadside foliage that obstructs a traveler’s view of a state-mandated traffic-control device unless the foliage is actually growing on it, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court held that the city of Campbell is entitled to immunity from a personal injury lawsuit brought by a woman who ran a stop sign and hit another car. Judith Pelletier claimed she could not see the stop sign at the intersection because trees or large bushes were growing in the “devil strip,” which is the grassy area between the street and the sidewalk.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that Ohio political subdivisions are not immune from lawsuits involving traffic accidents “caused by their negligent failure to keep public roads in repair and other negligent failure to remove obstructions from public roads.” The majority concluded that the stop sign was in good repair, and because the foliage was not on the stop sign, the city had no obligation to remove it from the devil strip.

Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the majority opinion.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred in part and dissented in part. The chief justice wrote that Pelletier ought to have an opportunity to establish that the city is responsible for removing foliage that fully obstructed the stop sign. Fourth District Court of Appeals Judge William Harsha, sitting for Justice Mary DeGenaro, joined Chief Justice O’Connor’s opinion.

Injured Driver Sues Property Owner, City
In August 2013, Pelletier was driving on Sanderson Avenue in Campbell and was approaching the intersection with 12th Street. Traffic on Sanderson Avenue is controlled by a stop sign, while 12th Street has no stop sign and through traffic has the right of way. Pelletier said she did not see the stop sign because of the trees and shrubs in the devil strip. The foliage was about 34 feet before the stop sign. She drove through the intersection without slowing down, collided with another car traveling on 12th Street, and suffered injuries.

In 2014, Pelletier filed a lawsuit against the city. She also sued Danny Saulsberry, the owner of the property where the foliage was growing; the Bank of New York Mellon, which had initiated foreclosure proceedings on Saulsberry’s properties; and Safeguard Properties LLC, which the bank had hired to maintain the property. The bank and Safeguard filed cross claims against the city, seeking to hold it financially responsible for any successful legal claim Pelletier might have against the companies.

Pelletier later settled her claim against Safeguard, and the city moved for summary judgment against Pelletier’s and the bank’s claims. The city asserted that, under R.C. Chapter 2744, the city was immune from liability. The trial court denied the motion and the Seventh District Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, holding the city could be liable if a trial court determines that the city negligently failed to keep the public road in repair by allowing the foliage to block the sign or if the failure to remove the foliage constituted an “obstruction” that the city was obligated to remove.

The city appealed the Seventh District’s decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to consider the case.

Parties Debate Court Precedent, Change in Law
Campbell argued that the Ohio Supreme Court defined “in proper repair” in its 1984 Hecket v. Patrick decision, which stated a road that is not deteriorated or disassembled is in proper repair. The stop sign on Sanderson Avenue was in good condition, the city maintained. The city also noted that in 2003, the General Assembly amended R.C. 2744.02(B)(3) to clarify that a political subdivision is not liable for conditions that hinder or impede the use of a public road, or such as foliage that creates a potential visual hindrance, because those are not “obstructions” as defined by the law.

Pelletier argued that the city had a duty to maintain the “proper operation and functioning” of the traffic signals that fall within the definition of a “public road.” She maintained that because the shrubs and trees blocked her view of the stop sign, the sign was not functioning and cannot be considered “in repair.” She also contended that that the foliage completely blocked the stop sign and therefore was an “obstruction” that the city had a duty to remove.

Law Favors City’s Position, Court Finds
The Court majority determined that the language of the statutes at issue is “plain and unambiguous,” which requires the Court to apply the law as written and not attempt to interpret it.

The opinion explained that R.C. Chapter 2744 grants immunity to political subdivisions from liability in performing a governmental function, such as maintaining a road. However, there are five exceptions to immunity listed in R.C. 2744.02(B), which can expose a government body to liability. The negligent failure to keep public roads in repair or to remove obstructions from public roads is one exception.

The Court unanimously agreed with the city’s interpretation that the stop sign was in good condition and that Campbell was not liable to Pelletier under the theory that the road was not “in repair.” The Court split on whether the city negligently failed to remove obstructions from a public road.

The majority opinion stated that the duty to remove obstructions extends only to “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,” citing the Court’s 2008 Howard v. Miami Twp. Fire Div. decision.

The Court stated that it had to determine how the duty to remove obstructions applies to a required traffic control device that is part of the public road by statute. The opinion noted that while the parties dispute the meaning of the term “obstructions,” the term had to be read in context with the whole provision of the law, which creates a duty to remove obstructions from public roads.

The majority noted that the statute does not define “from,” so the Court cited a definition from “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary” in which “from” means a “place of origin, source, or derivation of a material or immaterial thing.”

“The duty to ‘remove obstructions from public roads’ therefore indicates that the obstruction must originate in a specific location: the public road. And because the word ‘from’ denotes a specific place, it cannot refer to conditions that are only near or in the vicinity of public roads,” the majority stated.

The Court wrote that the law does not impose a duty on the city to remove foliage from the devil strip when it is 34 feet, 2 inches in front of the stop sign and not on the sign itself. Because foliage cannot be removed “from” a stop sign if it is not on the stop sign, the city is immune, the Court concluded.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court and directed it to grant the city’s request for summary judgment.

Dissent Raises Lawmakers’ Intent
In her partially concurring and dissenting opinion, Chief Justice O’Connor noted the General Assembly amended R.C. 2744(B)(3), which exposed political subdivisions to liability if they failed to keep a road “free from nuisance.” The language was changed to “negligent failure to remove obstructions from public roads,” and this appeal is the first time the Court has had to apply the new language to a case involving the obstruction of a stop sign, she observed.

The opinion maintained the majority focused almost exclusively on the word “from” and barely considered the word “obstruction,” even though it was one of the terms the legislature added to the statute. It asserted there is no question that an object can obstruct or block a traffic signal without being literally on it.

“The majority effectively rewrites the statute by interpreting the word ‘from’ to mean ‘on’ based on a single definition of the word ‘from’ that the majority selects out of multiple offerings in the dictionary,” the opinion stated.

The opinion stated the majority’s definition of “from” is incompatible with the testimony legislators heard prior to voting to amend the law, including the testimony of Rep. Jay Hottinger, sponsor of the bill making the changes. The opinion noted that Hottinger said the law at the time made a political subdivision liable for “any” failure to remove an obstruction, and the intent was to limit liability to only situations where the government was “negligent” in its failure to remove an obstruction.

The opinion concluded that there was no evidence the legislature intended to require that an obstacle be touching the public road in order for the political subdivision to be held liable, and that the city in this case may be held liable for negligently failing to remove an obstruction. The decision as to whether the city was negligent and if the tree was actually obstructing the sign is a question for the trial court, the opinion stated.

2017-0088. Pelletier v. Campbell, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-2121.

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