Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Tenth District: State Park Visitor Injured by Rock Launched from Lawn Mower can Hold ODNR Liable

Richard Combs was walking to his preferred fishing spot in Indian Lake State Park when a rock shot out of a boom mower attached to a tractor and hit him in the eye. When Combs sued for serious injury to his eye, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources claimed immunity for the accident, but a court of appeals ruled the state could be liable for the injury.

The 10th District Court of Appeals overruled on Sept. 16 the Ohio Court of Claims finding that the state law commonly known as the “recreational user statute” does not shield ODNR from liability for all accidents occurring on lands freely open to recreational users. The court overruled the February 2014 summary judgment in favor of the state and returned the case to the court for further proceedings.

Combs was injured in July 2011 while walking to his fishing spot. A state employee was mowing close the edge of the lake where riprap, rocks placed along the shoreline to prevent erosion, was located. The mower blade struck the riprap throwing a rock into Combs’ eye. Combs argued in his lawsuit that the employee negligently operated the mower and the state was liable. ODNR countered citing Ohio Revised Code 1533.81, known as the recreational user statute. The law indicates the state owes no duty of care “to keep the premises safe for entry or use” for recreational users such as those fishing, hunting or hiking on state lands.

Combs claims the law only applies to the conditions of the premises, and not negligent acts by the state that occur on the premises. Judge William A. Klatt, writing for the appeals court said a 2002 Ohio Supreme Court ruling that was discussed in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling favor Combs. In Ryll v. Columbus Fireworks Display Co., Inc., a city claimed immunity for a death caused by a city fireworks show after a spectator was hit by a mortar shell. The city was sued for allowing spectators to sit too close to where the fireworks were ignited. In citing the ruling, Judge Klatt noted the court said the recreational user statute applied to the condition of the premises and that the shrapnel from the fireworks was not part of the premises so the city could not claim immunity.

Pointing out that many other states have similar recreational user statutes that apply only to the conditions of the premises, Judge Klatt also said the Supreme Court’s Pauley v. Circleville (2013) ruling provided a chance for the court to distinguish injuries caused by the dangers of the premises from negligent actions on state property. In Pauley, a “railroad tie-like object embedded in a mound of dirt.” caused an injury to a park visitor and the court found the city was immune by the recreational user statute.

“Here the flying rock that injured Combs is akin to the flying shrapnel that injured the decedent in Ryll. Neither the rock nor the shrapnel constituted a defect in the premises,” Judge Klatt wrote. For ODNR to be immune for all dangerous conditions in the park, whether it was tied to the premises or not, the Supreme Court would have had to disavow Ryll in the Pauley decision and it did not.

Judges Susan Brown and Julia L. Dorrian concurred in the decision.

Combs v. Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources, 2014-Ohio-4025
Civil Appeal From:  Court of Claims
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: September 16, 2014

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