Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Township Claims Immunity for Police Crash During Pursuit

Image of a close-up of the blue, flashing lights on the top of a police cruiser as it pursues another vehicle

State law removes a political subdivision’s immunity when injuries are caused by an employee’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle.

Image of a close-up of the blue, flashing lights on the top of a police cruiser as it pursues another vehicle

State law removes a political subdivision’s immunity when injuries are caused by an employee’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle.

Coitsville Township officials are appealing lower court rulings that declined to give the township immunity in a lawsuit alleging that a police officer’s negligent operation of his cruiser caused a car crash, which led to serious injuries.

In September 2013, the officer, Donald Dudley, was pursuing two suspects believed to have stolen an El Camino and hitched it to their sedan. After Dudley talked with them, they unhitched the El Camino and drove away. Dudley pursued them through a residential neighborhood and activated his lights and siren. He reached speeds up to 76 mph.

Dudley later said that as he approached one intersection he saw the sedan ahead of him. The cruiser’s dashboard camera indicated that he drove through a red light. He collided with a vehicle driven by Renee McConnell of Hubbard. A report from law enforcement estimated each car was traveling between 37 and 41 mph when they crashed. The police cruiser swerved into a telephone pole, and McConnell’s car flipped.

Injured Woman Files Lawsuit Asserting Township Has No Immunity
McConnell and her family sued the Coitsville Township Police Department, the Coitsville Township Board of Trustees, and the officer. McConnell stated she suffered 17 broken ribs, several neck and lower back fractures, a detached retina, and other serious injuries.

Both the Mahoning County trial court and the Seventh District Court of Appeals declined to issue summary judgment to the township based on the township’s general immunity from civil lawsuits as a political subdivision. The Seventh District also removed Dudley from personal liability in the case.

The Ohio Supreme Court will consider the township’s appeal in McConnell v. Dudley next week during oral arguments.

Arguments Focus on Whether Training about Police Pursuits Strips Immunity
An exception to the immunity given to state entities exists in state law when there is an “injury, death, or loss to person or property caused by the negligent operation of any motor vehicle” by an employee. McConnell’s complaint argues that the township had a duty to hire qualified patrol officers, to maintain policies and procedures to guide officers in their duties, and to train officers on the policies and procedures. McConnell alleged that the township’s hiring or training of Dudley or its policies were negligent, willful, or wanton.

Coitsville counters that its hiring and training of officers and its policies aren’t the operation of a motor vehicle, as required for the exception to apply. The township also argues that the statute refers to the employee’s actions operating a motor vehicle, not the political subdivision’s conduct in hiring and training. The township is immune from liability in this case, it asserts.

Fourteen Ohio cities, two villages, and five organizations that represent counties, townships, municipalities, and school boards filed amicus briefs supporting Coitsville’s positions.

McConnell responds that the township’s negligent hiring and training of Dudley is directly connected to his operation of the cruiser and caused the crash. The township failed to ensure that officers who engage in high-speed pursuits were properly qualified, trained, and monitored, McConnell argues. Because government agencies act through their employees, she maintains that Dudley’s superiors contributed to his negligence.

The Ohio Association of Justice submitted an amicus brief on McConnell’s side.

Oral Argument Details
The Supreme Court will hear four cases on Tuesday, June 11 and three on Wednesday, June 12. The Court’s Office of Public Information today released previews of each case. Oral arguments begin at 9 a.m. at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus. All arguments are streamed live online at and broadcast live and archived on The Ohio Channel.

Tuesday, June 11
In State v. Boaston, a Toledo man convicted of murdering his ex-wife in 2014 challenges whether rules about expert testimony in criminal proceedings were followed in his case. At his trial, the coroner drew conclusions about the ex-wife’s time of death based on her stomach contents. The coroner also noted that a bruise under the victim’s chin was caused by a glove buckle similar to one the man owned. Although a criminal rule requires a report from an expert witness 21 days before trial, the man argues that the state never provided the report. The prosecutor asserts that the autopsy report, supplied a year before trial, provided all the necessary information and that the man’s attorney talked to the coroner about these conclusions a few weeks before the trial.

The pending trial of an 18-year-old Warren County girl charged with murdering her newborn baby and burying the baby in her backyard has drawn significant media coverage in southwestern Ohio. The presiding judge issued a gag order in 2017 preventing trial participants, including attorneys, witnesses, and law enforcement officers, from speaking to the news media about the case. The Cincinnati Enquirer objected to the order, and an appeals court granted a writ of prohibition stopping the order from taking effect. In State ex rel. the Cincinnati Enquirer v. Oda, the Court will consider the judge’s argument that the gag order is necessary to ensure a fair trial.

A Guernsey County couple bought 86 acres of land in 2012, in which the previous owner signed an oil and gas lease that allowed for an energy company to operate a well. The lease was to continue as long as the well produced oil or gas “in paying quantities.” In 2014, the couple filed a lawsuit against the current well operators, alleging that before 1999 and at times after, the well stopped producing, which automatically terminated the lease. The trial court dismissed the case, finding the state’s 15-year statute of limitations for contract disputes applied and the couple’s evidence about what occurred before 1999 wasn’t admissible. In Browne v. Artex Oil Company, the Court will consider whether the matter should be resolved using the 21-year statute of limitations that applies to property disputes, or the shorter time limit used for contract disputes.

The Board on the Unauthorized Practice of Law recommends that the Court order a Columbus company and its owner to pay a $31,000 penalty for negotiating debt settlements for small business owners and charging contingent fees. The board maintains that a non-attorney can’t represent debtors in Ohio by advising, counseling, or negotiating settlements of their debts with creditors. In Ohio State Bar Association v. Watkins Global Network, the business owner argues that he was engaged in debt settlement practices that non-attorneys are permitted to handle.

Wednesday, June 12
State v. Froman is the death-penalty appeal of a Mayfield, Kentucky, man convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in June 2017 in Ohio. Among his 14 legal claims, he notes the sentence enhancements, or specifications, that made him subject to the death penalty in Ohio were based on a course of conduct involving the murder of his ex-girlfriend’s son the same day in Kentucky. He argues that Ohio’s courts had no jurisdiction over those specifications because the murder took place in Kentucky. The admission of evidence about the Kentucky murder undermined his right to a fair trial, he states. The Warren County prosecutor counters that the specifications aren’t subject to the state law governing when a criminal offense can be prosecuted in Ohio.

A Cleveland man charges the city of Cleveland with orchestrating a scheme to help two police officers declare bankruptcy to avoid paying a $13.2 million judgment the man won from the officers for violating his constitutional rights. The city was obligated under state law to indemnify the detectives and pay the judgment, if the employees sought indemnification. Rather than pay, the city hired a bankruptcy attorney to assist the officers in filing for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy declaration made the man a judgment creditor, and he filed a lawsuit to force the city to indemnify one of the officers so he could collect. In Ayers v. Cleveland, the Court will consider if the law allows only a municipal employee to sue for indemnification and prohibits judgment creditors from suing.