Appeals Court Affirms Political Subdivision Immunity in Slip and Fall

Stetz v. Copley Fairlawn School Dist., 2015-Ohio-4358

The Ninth Appellate District Court of Appeals has reaffirmed political subdivision immunity for public school districts in a slip and fall case. The Copley Fairlawn School District was sued after a student slipped and fell. The student worked in the office during her study hall. During her office time, the student was directed by a vice principal to go and change the letters on a marquee. The student did so and reentered the building. Forty five minutes after re-entering the building, the student slipped as she began to descend a stair case. The student fell backwards and hit her head on concrete. The student did not recollect any water being present on the floor at the time of her fall.

The school moved for summary judgment on the basis that it was immune from suit under Ohio law. The trial court denied summary judgment, finding that there were genuine issues of fact in dispute for the jury to decide as to whether an exception to immunity applied.

There are five exceptions to political subdivision immunity provided by Revised Code Chapter 2744. If one of these exceptions applies, the school district is not protected by immunity. The exceptions for which political subdivisions (including school districts) are liable for injury, death, or loss to person or property are as follows:

1. The negligent operation of any motor vehicle by their employees when the employees are engaged within the scope of their employment and authority.

2. The negligent performance of acts by their employees with respect to proprietary functions of the political subdivisions.

3. Negligent failure to keep public roads in repair to remove obstructions from public roads.

4. Injury, death, or loss to person or property that is caused by the negligence of employees and that occurs within or on the grounds of, and is due to physical defects within or on the grounds of, buildings that are used in connection with the performance of a governmental function (e.g., a school building).

5. Civil liability is expressly imposed upon the political subdivision by a section of the Revised Code

The student here argued that the buildings and grounds exception (number 4 above) applied. However, the Court of Appeals found that the student had not set forth sufficient evidence that there was a defect in the building where she fell or that the school employees were negligent. Particularly here, the defect would have been that the staff permitted a wet substance to remain on the floor causing a safety hazard. The court found that there was not sufficient information to determine if the floor was even wet at the time she fell, let alone whether a hazard had negligently been permitted to remain. Accordingly the school district was entitled to immunity and the case was dismissed.

Districts should keep in mind that while they may be protected by the immunity grants of Chapter 2744, immunity is not automatic as there are exceptions to the rule.


Court Sides with Unemployment on Scope of Appeals

Friedel v. Quota, 2015-Ohio-4060

The Sixth Appellate District (Williams County) has reversed a trial court ruling which overturned the unemployment Commission’s (ODJFS) grant of benefits to a truck driver who quit his job. At the initial hearing, the truck driver claimed to have quit because his truck broke down and his employer refused to assist.

The truck driver claimed that the employer provided debit card did not have enough funds to make the repairs, that the employer refused to assist because he was intoxicated and that he had to summon his son-in-law to the scene for assistance, who had to drive eighty miles in the middle of the night.

The employer testified that his understanding at the time of hire was that the employee was able to make minor repairs, that there were in fact sufficient funds on the card provided, that the employer recommended he call his son-in-law because he was employed as a road services tech and that the trip was only thirty miles.

ODJFS found in favor of the employer denying the benefits and finding that the employee quit without just cause. The employee appealed. At the appeal hearing, the truck driver claimed for the first time that he quit because his employer asked him to violate federal regulations regarding down time for truck drivers who have driven a certain number of hours. The employee claimed that the employer insisted that he drive a route in violation of law. This caused an argument to ensue and the employee quit. The employer did not participate and the initial decision was reversed, finding that the employee had just cause to quit and was therefore entitled to benefits.

The employer unsuccessfully appealed to the Review Commission and then to the trial court. Before the court, the employer challenged the employee’s credibility by questioning why the employee set forth his most recent justification for the first time on appeal. The trial court agreed finding that the employee had really quit because of the roadside breakdown incident and found in favor of the employer.

ODJFS appealed to the Sixth Appellate District. There, the Court reviewed the standard on appeal. Courts reviewing decisions of the Unemployment Commission are to limit their inquiry as to whether the decision by unemployment is “unlawful, unreasonable, or against the manifest weight of the evidence.” This is a high standard. That reasonable minds might disagree is not enough for a court to overturn the unemployment decision so long as there is “some competent, credible evidence in the record” to support it. The Appellate Court found that the Trial Court had improperly considered the credibility arguments on appeal because there is no rule providing that a claim or defense is waived if not made in the initial application or hearing.

Accordingly there are lessons to be learned from this case:

1. Do not rest until the fight is finished. Here, the employer did not participate in the appeal where the employee’s ultimately successful argument was made. Credibility could have been attacked at this time, rather than improperly before the court. Therefore, make sure you are represented and are participating at all levels of the appeal.

2. The standard on appeal to a court of common pleas is difficult. Courts are generally limited to the record provided by ODJFS. The scope of the review by the court is limited as to whether the hearing officer’s decision was “unlawful, unreasonable, or against the manifest weight of the evidence.”

Please do not hesitate to contact an attorney at Ennis Britton Co., L.P.A., with your questions regarding unemployment.