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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Hazard in City Park Does Not Affect City’s Recreational Use Immunity

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that under state law a city is immune from liability for injuries resulting from a sledding accident on a pile of topsoil, which was being stored in a city park and contained debris. The court held that the city owes no duty to recreational users to ensure that a park is safe for entry or use.

The 5-2 decision, authored by Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, affirms the judgment of the Fourth District Court of Appeals.

In January 2007, 18-year-old Jeremy Pauley broke his neck while sledding in Barthelmas Park, which is owned and maintained by the City of Circleville. As a result of the accident, Pauley became quadriplegic. He was injured when he slid head-first into a large wooden object similar to a railroad tie while sledding down a mound of dirt, which the city had transported from a construction site and was temporarily storing on the park grounds because space at a municipal maintenance facility had reached capacity.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, holding that the city was immune from lawsuits under R.C. 1533.181. On review, the Fourth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. Pauley’s attorneys appealed the Fourth District’s decision to the Supreme Court.

The court in its opinion today noted that, under the recreational-user statutes (R.C. 1533.18 and 1533.181), property owners whose premises are open free of charge to recreational users are immune from liability for injuries suffered by recreational users while they are participating in recreational activities. Attorneys for Pauley asked the court to hold that, if a property owner modifies the property in a way that creates a hazard, immunity doesn’t apply. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated that the court declines to adopt such an exception because there is no support for it in statutory or case law.

Justice Kennedy wrote that Pauley admitted he entered the park, free of charge, to go sledding, so he was a recreational user within R.C. 1533.181. The city’s alleged creation of a hazard on the premises, she continued, does not affect the city’s immunity.

Justice Kennedy addressed Pauley’s reliance on the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Dayton (1989). She wrote: “[T]he question in Miller was whether manmade improvements, such as a baseball diamond, changed the essential character of the property to something other than an outdoor space used for something other than an outdoor recreational activity. Accordingly, Miller lends no support to appellants’ proposition that liability is precluded for injuries caused by manmade improvements only when such improvements enhance the recreational activities on the property. Whether the manmade improvements in Miller enhanced the recreational activities in the park was irrelevant. The question was whether the improvements so changed the essential character of the park as to take it outside the protection of the statute. We cannot accept as reasonable any contention that the presence of a railroad tie in a public park changes its essential character as a recreational space.”

“Critics may claim that our decision reaches a harsh result,” she concluded. “However, the language of the recreational-user statute is plain; a property owner owes no duty to a recreational user to keep the property safe for entry or use. Creating an exception to this immunity is a policy decision that comes within the purview of the General Assembly, not the courts. … [W]e will not create an exception by judicial fiat.”

The court’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and Judith L. French. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor concurred with the majority’s decision in judgment only but didn’t join the written majority opinion.

Justice William M. O’Neill entered a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who also wrote separately.

In his dissent, Justice O’Neill wrote that while he agrees with the “letter, spirit, and intent of most recreational user statutes,” the city lost its recreational user immunity when it dumped huge mounds of debris into the park.

On the majority’s interpretation of the Supreme Court’s earlier holding in Miller, Justice O’Neill disagreed: “[L]et’s be accurate here — we are not talking about a single railroad tie. That tie that crippled this child was part of an overall scheme of disposal of huge mounds of debris that the city had incredibly decided to place in the middle of a recreational park! Cover it with a light dressing of snow, and the perfect killing field was created. I would hold, as a matter of law, that when the owner of a property that enjoys the immunity granted by the people of Ohio for recreational purposes makes a conscious decision to use the property for other purposes, the immunity ceases.”

Justice Pfeifer, writing in his separate dissent, said he joins Justice O’Neill’s dissent but doesn’t share Justice O’Neill’s enthusiasm for the statutes governing recreational users. The immunity provisions in those statutes provide unreasonable and unconstitutional protection to government entities that own property, he stated.

2012-1150. Pauley v. Circleville, Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-4541.

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