Ohio Court of Appeals Holds that Timing of Pedestrian Crosswalk Signal Was Discretionary Function, Granting City Immunity in Wrongful Death Case

There was a time when it was said that, ” You can’t sue City Hall”…or the State of Ohio. Just like a king, they were immune from suit. But that’s not always the case today.

This idea of sovereign immunity still holds true in some Ohio wrongful death and personal injury cases. Although our state government has carved out  exceptions to the general rule against holding the government liable in a negligence case, immunity still applies in some cases. (That said, even if immunity is waived, it is worth noting that there is likely to be a limitation of some sort, such as a cap on the amount of money damages recoverable by the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the government.) A governmental entity like a city may be sued for its negligence in performing  what are called proprietary functions, but not for so-called governmental functions.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a recent appellate case from Stark County was the administrator of the estate of a woman who died after being struck by two automobiles while using a crosswalk to walk across a five-lane road as she walked to the store. The administrator sued the drivers of the automobiles, as well as the city in which the accident occurred, claiming that the woman’s wrongful death was due to the motorists’ as well as the City’s negligence. After the motorists reached a settlement with the Estate of the woman, the city filed a motion for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss the case against the city.

The trial court granted the city’s motion, holding that the city was immune from suit, pursuant to Ohio Revised Code § 2744.02(B). In so ruling, the trial court opined that the city’s maintenance of a pedestrian signal at an intersection was not the same as “keeping a public road in repair” when deciding whether there was an exception to the general rule of governmental immunity. The trial court further held that the city was entitled to immunity under Ohio Revised Code §§ 2744.03(a)(3) and (5) insomuch as the timing of a walk interval at a crosswalk was a discretionary decision. The administrator appealed the trial court’s decision.

Decision of the Court

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Appellate District of Ohio affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the city. The appellate court noted that the timing of pedestrian signals was a  “governmental function,” such that the defendant city was entitled to immunity unless one of the exceptions contained in Ohio Revised Code  § 2744.02(B) applied. The court next considered whether the act in question – the timing of the signal – was a mandatory duty or a discretionary act, noting that the defendant could only claim immunity for failing to perform a discretionary act.

Although the plaintiff argued that the defendant breached a mandatory duty set forth by the Ohio Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices pertaining to pedestrian intervals and signal phases (and could thus be held liable for the decedent’s wrongful death), the appellate court noted that the provisions relied upon by the plaintiff were titled “Guidance” and contained the verb “should.” Thus, the court of appeals agreed with the defendant that the provisions were not mandatory and that the defendant had discretion in the timing of the pedestrian walk signal. Since there was no allegation that the city acted maliciously, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner, it was entitled to immunity.

Hire a Cleveland Injury Attorney

If you have recently lost a loved one due to  the negligence of a motorist, business, or governmental entity, you should consult with an experienced Ohio personal injury attorney about damages and  filing a wrongful death lawsuit seeking financial compensation for the loss of your family member. To discuss your case with an experienced Ohio wrongful death attorney, call Rubin Guttman & Associates, L.P.A. in Cleveland at 216-696-4006 today. Remember that strict deadlines apply to wrongful death and personal injury claims, so please do not delay in asserting your legal rights.

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