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Township Cannot Be Sued based on Hiring and Supervision of Officer Who Injured Motorist

Under Ohio law, a township cannot be held liable for negligence in the hiring, training, or supervising of a police officer who subsequently is involved in an accident during a high-speed pursuit of criminal suspects, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A motorist injured in 2013 when an officer slammed into her car while pursuing suspected car thieves sued Coitsville Township in Mahoning County on the theory that the township failed to properly train and oversee the officer. The Supreme Court ruled that the township could not be held liable on that theory.

The Court reversed the decision of the Seventh District and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that there is an exception to broad governmental immunity if an officer causes injury, death, or loss of property while “operating a motor vehicle” while responding to an emergency call. But the determination of the government’s responsibility is based on the officer’s driving at the time of the incident, not on a governmental body’s hiring, training, or supervision. The governmental body can be liable if an officer’s operation of the vehicle constitutes willful  or wanton misconduct.

Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Michael P. Donnelly concurred in judgment only.

Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred with a separate written opinion, noting that evidence of “supervisory negligence” by township officials may have some bearing on whether the officer can be found liable for his operation of the vehicle.

Chase Leads to Accident
Coitsville Township officer Donald Dudley responded to an early morning alert in September 2013 regarding a stolen Chevrolet El Camino. Dudley found the El Camino being towed by a Buick sedan headed toward Youngstown. He pulled over the Buick, and questioned the occupants, who replied they owned the El Camino. As Dudley radioed for backup, the suspects unhooked the El Camino and drove away in the Buick.

As Dudley pursued the car, reaching speeds as high as 76 mph, he approached an intersection that he knew was controlled by a stop light, but he did not notice the light was red as he entered the intersection. He also did not see the Toyota Corolla driven by Renee McConnell approaching the intersection because a house and a tree obstructed his view. Dudley’s vehicle struck McConnell’s, which struck a utility pole and overturned. McConnell suffered serious injuries from the accident.

Family Sues Officer, Township
McConnell and her family sued Dudley, the township, and its police department, alleging that Dudley was “negligent, willful, or wanton” in the operation of the cruiser and the township was responsible for the accident because of its policies and procedures in “pursuit training” and its hiring and training of Dudley.

The township and the officer asked a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court for summary judgment, asserting immunity from liability under R.C. Chapter 2744, the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act, which establishes the state’s sovereign immunity statutory scheme. The trial court denied the requests, and the township and officer appealed the decision to the Seventh District Court of Appeals.

The Seventh District affirmed the trial court’s judgment in part, finding the court should consider whether Dudley’s actions constituted “willful and wanton misconduct” and whether the township was negligent in training and supervising him. The Seventh District also found Dudley could not be personally sued for the accident because the MConnells had failed to make that claim against him.

The township appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to consider one of its arguments — that allegations of negligent hiring, training, or supervising police officers do not meet one of the exceptions in R.C. 2744.02(B) that would negate the township’s immunity from lawsuits.

Court Rejects Crash Victim’s Theory
Justice Kennedy explained that under R.C. 2744.02(A)(1) political subdivisions generally are immune from claims for damages in civil lawsuits for the injuries, deaths, or property losses caused by their employees. But the immunity is not absolute, and the legislature has provided exceptions. For instance, under R.C. 2744.02(B)(1), political subdivisions can be liable for damages caused by an employee’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle.  But that exception to immunity does not apply if the employee was a police officer responding to an emergency call, unless the officer operated the vehicle in a way that constituted willful or wanton misconduct. The parties did not dispute that Dudley was responding to an emergency call at the time of the accident, according to the opinion.

The McConnells argued that the heightened standard of willful or wanton misconduct applies to Dudley’s behavior, but doesn’t apply to the township’s training, policies, and supervision, which led to Dudley engaging in a high-speed pursuit that contributed to accident. They contended that the township was directly liable for the negligent operation of the cruiser. They argued the township should be held to the lower standard of “negligence” for the oversight prior to the accident, and the law does not grant the township immunity.

The Court majority noted that the McConnells’ claims focused on the term “negligent operation of the vehicle.” The opinion stated that in the Court’s 2009 Doe v. Marlington Local School Dist. Bd. of Edn. decision, a case involving a school bus driver, “operation” of a vehicle was defined to pertain only to the driving or other causing of a vehicle to move, and did not encompass any other actions such as the driver’s supervision of the students on the bus.

“The analysis of the Seventh District Court of Appeals suggests that the political subdivision may itself be negligent in the operation of the vehicle. But political subdivisions do not drive,” the opinion stated.

The Court wrote that it is the employee’s conduct, not the governmental body’s, that establishes the exception to immunity, and the statute specifically states the government is liable for the “negligent operation of any motor vehicle by their employees when employees are engaged within the scope of their employment and authority.”

The opinion stated the McConnells cannot point to any provision in R.C. 2744.02(B) that imposes liability on the township for its conduct in hiring, training, or supervising of an officer.

Employer’s Role Can Be Analyzed in Accident Claim, Concurrence Stated 
In her concurring opinion, Justice Stewart wrote that she agreed with the majority that the township is not liable for negligence in hiring, training, and supervising an employee. But the trial court still must consider whether supervisory negligence, under circumstances like the one in this case, had any impact on whether an employee was negligent in operating the vehicle if the chase were not an emergency call, or whether the employee’s conduct was willful or wanton if it was an emergency call.

Evidence of negligence by Dudley’s supervisors “may still have some bearing” on determining if Dudley’s actions were negligent, willful, or wanton, she stated.

2018-0377. McConnell v. Dudley, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-4740.

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