Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court of Claims: State Pays Marion Man $70,000 After Lawn Mower Threw Rock at his Face

After the Ohio Supreme Court concluded in 2016 that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) wasn’t immune¬†from a lawsuit by a Marion man struck in the face by a rock when fishing at Indian Lake State Park, the department agreed to settled the case for $70,000.

The Ohio Court of Claims on Aug. 2 approved the settlement between Richard Combs and ODNR. The terms of the agreement state the agency doesn’t admit to any wrongdoing, and Combs agreed not to pursue any other claims against the state in exchange for the payment.

Combs Hit by Riprap
In July 2011, Combs was celebrating his birthday at Indian Lake and was crossing a causeway to Pew Island where an ODNR employee was using a boom mower to cut weeds and brush along the lakeshore. One of the mower blades hit the riprap (stones placed along the water’s edge to prevent erosion) and threw a rock that struck Combs in the eye and face. In July 2013, Combs filed a lawsuit in the Court of Claims alleging the employee negligently operated the mower and caused the injury. The Court of Claims found that Combs was a recreational user and that under R.C. 1533.181, ODNR had no obligation to keep the park safe for his use. The court ruled his negligence claim was barred by the law and granted summary judgment to ODNR. Combs appealed to the Tenth District Court of Appeals, which reversed the Court of Claims.

The Tenth District ruled that R.C. 1533.181, known as the recreational user statute, abolished the property owner’s duty to keep the premises safe for entry and use by recreational users. However, it provides immunity only for injuries caused by defective conditions of the grounds. Because Combs claimed he was injured by the negligence of a park worker and not by defects of the park, the recreational user statute didn’t apply, the Tenth District ruled. ODNR appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

High Court Sides with Combs
The agency maintained the law grants landowners absolute immunity to injury claims by recreational users that occur on the premises, as long as the user entered without paying a fee. Combs didn’t pay a fee.

The Supreme Court ruled in April 2016 that Ohio’s “recreational user statute” doesn’t bar Combs from suing because a park employee mowing the grass ran over a rock that shot into his face.

Similarly to the Tenth District, the Court’s lead opinion stated the immunity protection in the law is limited to injuries caused by the defective condition of the recreational premises.

Writing for the Court, Justice Terrence O’Donnell explained the immunity provided by the statute limits the liability of landowners in three ways: the landowner has no duty to keep the premise safe for entry; the landowner has no duty to assure that users once on the property remain safe; and the landowner isn’t liable if a recreational user is injured by another recreational user.

He wrote the General Assembly didn’t extend the immunity to a landowner for injury caused by the acts of the landowner or its employees. The Court noted it has barred lawsuits for injuries arising from the condition of the premises, and cited the Court’s 2013 Pauley v. Circleville decision as an example. In that case, the city wasn’t held liable for an injury that occurred when a boy on a sled hit a railroad-tie-like object embedded in a snow-covered mound of dirt at a public park.

The Supreme Court remanded Combs’ case to the Court of Claims where the state and Combs spent nearly a year preparing for trial before the two sides began negotiating a settlement.

Richard Combs v. Ohio Department of Natural Resources, et al., Case No. 2013-00428.

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