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Supreme Court Rules City of Findlay Not Immune in Stop Sign Accident Case

The city of Findlay is not immune from liability in a traffic accident case involving a stop sign obscured by a tree, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a decision written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, the Court reversed a judgment of the Third District Court of Appeals and sent the case back to the Hancock County trial court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

“We express no opinion about whether Findlay is liable,” the Court’s ruling stated. However, the city cannot be protected in this case by its claim of “statutory political-subdivision immunity” as allowed in summary judgment by the trial court and upheld by the district appeals court.

In ruling on Bibler et al. v. Stephenson et al; the City of Findlay, the Supreme Court stated that “the stop sign was not in repair and was obstructed” by a tree. “We conclude that Findlay is not immune pursuant to Revised Code 2744.02(B)(3) and is potentially amenable to liability,” Justice Pfeifer wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote that “the scope of a political subdivision’s statutory duties is separate from and independent of its tort liability.”

Pickup Truck on State Highway Hit by Car
In May 2011, Gary Bibler was at the wheel of his pickup truck on Sandusky Street in Findlay, which is also Ohio State Route 568. Jill Stevenson was driving her car north on Wilson Street. She drove across Sandusky Street without stopping or yielding, and her car collided with Bibler’s truck, which had the right of way. Stevenson said she didn’t see the stop sign until it was too late to stop. In a deposition, a Findlay city police officer testified that, in his opinion, the foliage of the tree would obstruct a driver’s view of the stop sign. He referred to a similar accident at the intersection the year before, and said the tree should be removed.

The accident caused property damage and injury. The Biblers and Stevenson settled the claims against her. The Biblers appealed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the city, which had held that statutory political-subdivision immunity shielded it from the suit and that the Biblers had not established an exception to the statute. The Third District upheld the trial court in a split decision, saying “the answer is no” to the question of whether the stop sign fell under the definition of “a public road” for the purposes of sovereign immunity. The Ohio Supreme Court then accepted the Biblers’ appeal.

Definition of Public Road Examined
The city of Findlay also asserted that a stop sign falls outside the definition of a public road under R.C.2744.01(H), unless it is mandated by the Ohio Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (OMUTCD). The Supreme Court acknowledged the city’s assertion that the version of the manual that was in force when the accident occurred did not “specifically and affirmatively” indicate that “the erection of any stop sign is ever mandatory.”

However, Justice Pfeifer wrote that the manual “does not exist in a vacuum. It is a creature of the Revised Code (and) it is subservient to the Revised Code” and cannot override the “clear mandates” of state law. The drafters of the manual, he wrote, “are authorized and obligated to carry out the requirements of sections 4511.01 to 4511.76 and 4511.99 of the Revised Code,” including “the requirement in R.C. 4511.65(A) for the mandatory erection of stop signs (or some other traffic-control device) at intersections involving through highways, subject to certain limited exceptions that are not applicable here.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice William M. O’Neill joined Justice Pfeifer’s opinion. Justice Terrence O’Donnell concurred in judgment only.

Justice Lanzinger was joined in her dissent by Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French.

Limits to City Liability Were Not Written in “Whimsy”
Justice Lanzinger writes in her dissent that, “The default position in R.C. Chapter 2744 is that political subdivisions are immune from liability and that they are liable only when the circumstances fall under of the exceptions enumerated in that chapter of the Revised Code.”

She wrote that exceptions to statutory immunity as expressed by the General Assembly must be applied “strictly as written” because the General Assembly’s intent on limiting exceptions “was not whimsy but a deliberate effort to limit political subdivisions for injuries and deaths on their roadways.”

The OMUTCD in force at the time of the accident, and in the applicable Section 2B.05, she wrote, didn’t include “mandatory language” regarding stop signs.

2015-1737. Bibler et al. v. Stevenson et al.; the City of Findlay, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-8449.

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