Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Fortified Mailbox Owners Not Responsible for Pickup Driver’s Paralyzing Injuries

A Huron County couple is not liable for the severe injuries suffered by a motorist whose truck slid off a rural road and struck the couple’s heavily fortified mailbox, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

Noting the facts of the case are “undisputedly tragic,” the Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that landowners owe no duty to protect motorists who leave the regularly traveled portion of road and strike an object in the right-of-way. In Ohio, “right-of-way” is the general term for property near the side of a public road that is devoted to transportation purposes, the opinion stated.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated the Court has repeatedly ruled political subdivisions, landowners, and others owe a duty of care to drivers if they create hazards that “affect the safety of ordinary travel on the road.” Because Matthew and Diane Burr’s mailbox did not affect the safety of ordinary travel on the regularly traveled portion of Young Road, they are not responsible for the injuries suffered by Cletus Snay, she concluded.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody J. Stewart joined the chief justice’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated that Matthew Burr created a “mini fortress” to protect his mailbox, and that Ohio court precedent allows for a landowner to be liable for creating an “unreasonable” hazard in the right-of-way. He maintained the matter should return to the trial court for further proceedings.

Justice Jennifer Brunner joined his opinion.

Accident Paralyzed Driver
On a December 2016 afternoon, Snay was driving on Young Road, a two-lane country road, on his way from his home in Norwalk to his job in Bellevue. He had driven the route for five years without incident. The afternoon was sunny and clear, but the road was wet and icy with patches of “black ice.”  Snay hit a patch of ice and did not remember what happened after that.

Ohio Highway Patrol Trooper Robert Jones responded to a call of a vehicle crash and located Snay trapped in his pickup truck off the side of the road. Emergency responders were treating Snay. As a result of the accident, Snay injured his spine and was rendered a quadriplegic.

The trooper discovered the Burrs’ mailbox was located 1 foot, 9 inches from the edge of the road and within the right-of-way. Jones concluded that Snay’s truck went off the right side of the road, began to fishtail, struck two mailboxes, and overturned. The first mailbox was the Burrs’, and Jones determined that Snay’s truck began to roll over after hitting the Burrs’ mailbox but before hitting the second mailbox. After the accident, the Burrs’ mailbox remained standing, and the second mailbox was destroyed.

Vandals Prompt Landowner to Fortify Mailbox
Matthew Burr installed a new mailbox in 1996 after his previous mailbox had been broken by repeated instances of suspected vandalism. Before installing the mailbox, Burr obtained U.S. Postal Service guidelines from his local post office on how to install a rural mailbox.

He recalled the guidelines recommended, but did not require, that if a metal mailbox support was used, it should be a steel or aluminum pipe 2 inches in diameter. The support was to be buried no more than 24 inches deep. Burr acknowledged the guidelines were likely intended to promote traffic safety.

Burr used an 8-inch-diameter metal pipe, which he buried 36 inches into the ground. He then packed the support hole with powdered concrete mix, dirt, and stone. He testified that he thought if it would rain, the concrete mix would “set up” and make the support beam “a little stiffer.” Although he wanted the post to deter vandals, he said he was “fairly confident” the post would “lay over” if struck by a vehicle.

Injured Driver Sued Landowners
Snay and his wife filed a lawsuit in Huron County Common Pleas Court against the Burrs. While the trooper had not determined that the Burrs’ mailbox caused Snay’s truck to flip, an accident reconstructionist hired by the Snays concluded the “unyielding heavy metal pipe mailbox support” caused the truck to overturn and led to Snay’s injuries.

The Burrs sought summary judgment from the trial court, arguing Snay’s failure to control his vehicle on the regularly traveled portion of the road was the sole cause of his injuries. The trial court sided with the Burrs, finding Ohio law does not hold landowners legally responsible for protecting motorists who lose control of their vehicles and leave the ordinarily traveled portion of the road.

The Snays appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which, in a split decision, affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The couple appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case.

Supreme Court Examined Duty Owed to Driver
Chief Justice O’Connor explained that when the Snays sued the Burrs for negligence, they were required to prove the existence of a legal duty, that the Burrs breached that duty, and that the injuries Cletus Snay suffered were the result of that breach of duty. A duty to exercise ordinary care depends on the relationship between the parties, the opinion stated, and in general, people are expected “to use reasonable precautions against the risks that a reasonably prudent person would anticipate.”

To determine whether the Burrs owed a duty to Snay, the Court looked to its precedent regarding the duties owed to motorists by “adjacent landowners or occupiers of adjacent land, whether they be political subdivisions, utility companies, or private persons.”

The opinion cited the Court’s 1982 Manufacturer’s Natl. Bank of Detroit v. Erie Cty. Rd. Comm. decision, which involved a fatal auto accident that occurred at a rural intersection where corn growing in the right-of-way obstructed a motorist’s vision of cross-traffic at a two-way stop. The plaintiffs sued the township where the intersection was located and the grower of the corn.

The township was accused of creating a nuisance by allowing corn grown in the right-of-way to obstruct the motorists’ views. The Court found the township had a duty to keep the right-of-way free from conditions that directly jeopardized the safety of traffic on the highway. A permanent obstruction, which renders portions of the highway unsafe for the usual and ordinary course of travel, can be a nuisance for which the township could be held liable, the Court ruled.

Regarding the corn grower, the Court found growing crops in the right-of-way served no highway purpose and if the use of the right-of-way was inconsistent with highway purposes and created an unreasonable hazard to highway users, the corn grower could be held liable.

Court Compares Accident Circumstances
While the Snays argued the Manufacturer’s Natl. Bank decision supports their right to sue the Burrs, the Court majority disagreed. The opinion stated the Court’s decision in Manufacturer’s Natl. Bank and subsequent cases create a duty to motorists only for hazards that affect travel on the “regularly traveled portion of the road.” The right-of-way is not a regularly traveled portion of the road, and the Burrs’ mailbox did not affect ordinary travel on the regularly traveled portion of Young Road, the Court stated. The mailbox presented a hazard only to motorists who errantly left the road, the opinion noted.

The Snays argued for an exception to the rule because Burr created an unreasonable hazard. Burr understood from the postal guidelines that his fortified mailbox might be hazardous to vehicles that might leave the road, they maintained.

The Court rejected the argument, noting the Court has held motorists are responsible for keeping their vehicles under control and on the appropriate side of the road, regardless of weather conditions. Skidding on wet or icy roadway pavement is a circumstance within the power of a motorist to prevent, the opinion noted.

“And adjacent landowners, like the Burrs, are entitled to presume that motorists will observe the law and exercise ordinary care,” the opinion stated.

Mailbox Owners May Be Responsible for Accident, Dissent Stated
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly observed that summary judgment is to be granted only when “reasonable minds can come to but one conclusion.” He noted the presence of a well-reasoned dissent by one of the three appellate judges considering the case demonstrates that reasonable minds can come to more than one conclusion about who is legally responsible for Snay’s injuries.

The majority opinion noted Burr understood the postal guidelines were intended to promote traffic safety, but he exceeded the guidelines to deter vandals, the dissent stated. The dissent disputed the precedent set by the Manufacturer’s Natl. Bank decision, stating it finds landowners can be found to owe a duty of care to motorists based on creating “unreasonable” hazards in the right-of-way.

Justice Donnelly wrote it “does not take great imagination to see how” the Burrs might owe a duty of care to motorists. The intentional construction of an immovable object in the right-of-way raises the issue of whether it was foreseeable that the mailbox could cause Snay’s truck to roll over while an ordinary mailbox would not, he wrote. The dissent stated a jury should resolve the matter.

2020-1057. Snay v. Burr, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-4113.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.