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.