In a 4-3 decision rendered on December 28, 2022, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that the absence of a fire extinguisher in a science classroom “could be a physical defect such that an exception to immunity exists under R.C. 2744.02(B)(4).”
The case of Doe v. Greenville City Schools arose from an accident within a science class. The plaintiffs alleged that the school district “negligently caused their injuries when they suffered severe burns in December 2019 after a bottle of isopropyl alcohol caught fire and exploded in a science class.” The complaint further alleged that the school district “failed to provide proper safety equipment, ‘especially, but not limited to, a fire extinguisher inside the classroom,’ failed to ensure that there were proper safety features and protocols in place, [and] failed to properly supervise and protect them…”
The Supreme Court held that the allegations should survive a motion to dismiss. Discussing the standard, the Supreme Court explained, “R.C. 2744.02(B)(4) requires that two separate elements be met—the injuries at issue must be caused both (1) by a political subdivision employee’s negligence and (2) by a physical defect within or on the grounds of buildings that are used in connection with the performance of a governmental function.
Noting that the term “physical defect” is not statutorily defined, the Supreme Court acknowledged a split among Ohio courts of appeals as to whether the lack of a safety feature could constitute a “physical defect.” The Supreme Court agreed with the courts that have held that the lack of safety equipment or other safety features could amount to a physical defect. Thus, “the absence of a fire extinguisher or other safety equipment within a science classroom could be a physical defect such that an exception to immunity could exist under R.C. 2744.02(B)(4).”
As a result of this decision, another exception to the immunity statute has been recognized by the Supreme Court. Please contact one of our attorneys is you would like to further discuss this case and its implications.
A link to the decision can be found here.