Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Driver Seeks Damages After Collision with Fortified Rural Mailbox Left Him Paralyzed

Image of a mailbox on a rural road

The Court will consider whether driver who was paralyzed after hitting a fortified mailbox can recover damages from the landowner

Image of a mailbox on a rural road

The Court will consider whether driver who was paralyzed after hitting a fortified mailbox can recover damages from the landowner

Frustrated by teenage vandals cracking the wooden post of his mailbox, Matthew Burr built a new mailbox using an 8-inch diameter steel pipe he obtained from the scrap yard where he worked and buried the pipe three feet into the ground. He poured a mix of stones and cement into the post’s hole to further thwart the attempts of would-be pranksters.

On a cold day in December 2016, Cletus Snay was driving to work past Burr’s rural Huron County home when he hit a patch of black ice, slid off the road, and clipped Burr’s and Burr’s neighbor’s mailboxes. Snay’s truck flattened the neighbor’s mailbox as the truck veered off the road. But Burr’s mailbox withstood the impact, and caused Snay’s truck to flip. Snay fractured his spine in three places and was paralyzed from the neck down.

Snay sued Burr and his wife, maintaining that if Burr had followed federal postal service recommendations for rural mailboxes, his truck would have safely slid off the road into an open yard after knocking over the mailbox.

Next week, the Ohio Supreme Court will consider whether landowners, such as Burr, are responsible for accidents that occur off the side of the road when a vehicle hits an object they own.

Legal Responsibility of Landowner Debated
At the center of the legal dispute between Snay and Burr is the duty of care owed by private landowners to travelers “on the highway.” Burr’s home is on Young Road in Bellevue. The paved road itself is about 20 feet wide, with two 20-feet wide unpaved “rights-of-way” on both sides of the road.

Burr’s mailbox is located within the right-of-way, about 21 inches from the edge of the paved road, which is consistent with postal service guidelines. The lower courts sided with Burr, citing the general rule that Ohio law imposes no duty on property owners to motorists who lose control of their vehicles, leave the traveled portion of the roadway, and strike an off-the-road object within the right-of-way.

Snay asserts there is an exception to the general rule — a landowner has no duty to remove an off-the-road hazard that doesn’t affect travel on the highway “unless the landowner had actual or constructive knowledge of the danger posed to travelers on the highway.” Snay maintains the lower courts placed too much emphasis on the mailbox being legally located in the right-of-way. He maintains the key issue is the unreasonable construction of the mailbox, which made it a known danger to travelers.

Rural Mailbox Exceeds Guidelines
In 1995, the railroad tie that served as the post for Burr’s mailbox sustained its last hit from vandals and had fallen over. Burr went to the Bellevue Post Office, which provided a written sheet of federal guidelines for rural mailboxes. At a deposition, Burr recalled that the guidelines suggested the use of a wooden post no more than 4-inches by 4-inches or a standard steel or aluminum pipe of 2 inches in diameter buried no more than 24 inches into the ground. Burr stated he understood the recommended mailbox supports would be stable but bend or fall away if hit by a car.

Burr used an 8-inch diameter hollow metal pole and buried it 36 inches into the ground. He poured rocks into the hole and dry cement left over from a home improvement.

Not long after the installation, a township official who plowed the snow on Young Road told Burr that he was concerned about the mailbox and thought it was illegal because it could damage the snowplow. Burr testified that he thought the mailbox would give way if hit by the snowplow. Burr also acknowledged he was aware of vehicles occasionally clipping his mailbox because it was close to the road, and had experienced vehicles sliding off the road and onto his property in the past.

Circumstances Different than Most Highway Obstruction Cases, Motorist Maintains
Snay explains that most cases concerning motorist accidents with obstructions in rights-of-way deal with utility poles, where there is no duty owed to motorists if the utility had government approval to place the poles in the right-of-way, or with obstructions that are the responsibility of local governments. The few cases dealing with private landowner responsibilities involved obstructions that existed on the land, such as a tree that had grown too close to the road or rubble from a demolished building, and claims that the landowner should have removed them from the right-of-way, he notes. Unlike the other cases, Burr placed an object in the right-of-way and knew it was dangerous, making him liable for the accident, Snay maintains.

Mailbox No Threat to Motorists On the Road, Landowner Asserts
Burr notes this case is no different than the others, citing the exception noted by Snay. That exception applies to “danger posed to travelers on the highway.” Snay wasn’t on the road when he hit the mailbox. He was off the road because he hit a patch of black ice that the landowner had no responsibility to remove, he maintains. Burr argues the Supreme Court has struck a reasonable balance that imposes liability on landowners if they obstruct travel on the highway but provides no duty when their off-the-road objects don’t interfere with ordinary travel.

The Court will hear oral arguments in Snay v. Burr and six other cases during a two-day session on June 15 and 16.

Oral Argument Details
The Supreme Court will consider Snay and three other cases on June 16 and three more on June 15. Oral arguments begin each day at 9 a.m.

Because of the coronavirus health crisis, the Court will hold its session by videoconference. The arguments will be streamed live online at and broadcast live, and archived, on The Ohio Channel.

In addition to these highlights, the Court’s Office of Public Information released preview articles today about each case, available through the case-name links.

Tuesday, June 15
In State v. McAlpin, a Cleveland man was convicted for shooting and killing the owners of a local used car business during a robbery in which he stole cars and vehicle titles. The man was sentenced to death. Cases for capital offenses include a guilt phase and a penalty phase. The man, who represented himself throughout his trial, argues that a defendant shouldn’t be permitted to waive the right to an attorney during the penalty phase of a death-penalty trial. The county prosecutor counters that the defendant was competent; it was his choice to waive his right; and he did so voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently.

The father of two children murdered their mother in 2006 and is serving a prison sentence. The juvenile court gave custody of the children to their maternal grandparents and ordered the father to have no contact with the children. In 2015, the grandparents filed a request in probate court to adopt the children. Adoptions require the consent of a child’s natural parents unless an exception applies. The grandparents contend in In re A.K. that the no-contact order doesn’t amount to justifiable cause for not staying in contact with the children. They also maintain that the probate court could consider the murder when determining whether the father’s consent for the adoption was needed. The father states that his consent to the adoption is required because the reason he didn’t communicate with his children was the no-contact order.

An ongoing dispute with a retired judge and allegations of improper conduct fueled by alcohol consumption could lead to a second sanction in as many years for a Logan County lawyer. The Board of Professional Conduct has recommended the attorney receive a six-month, fully stayed suspension, in part for her “loud, profane, and drunken conduct and remarks directed at” a now-retired judge during a holiday party at a local restaurant. In Columbus Bar Association v. Bahan, the attorney claims she violated no ethics rules when she quietly commented about the judge. She also disputes the bar association’s claims that seven other incidents involving alcohol over a nine-year period reflect adversely on her fitness to practice law.

Wednesday, June 16
After partying until the early morning hours at a Cincinnati home, a woman already under suspension for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs (OVI) and three friends got into a car parked outside the house to sleep. The woman sat in the driver’s seat, turned on the ignition, and heated the car to keep the occupants warm. Three hours later, a police officer found the four asleep. He cited the woman for driving under an OVI suspension. In State v. Wilson, the woman notes the officer admitted he never saw her move the car and argues that she couldn’t be convicted without moving the vehicle.

In 2018, Cincinnati City Council enacted a new excise tax on billboards to support a human services fund. The tax didn’t apply to signs on a company’s own premises and was to be paid by “advertising hosts.” Cincinnati limits the number of billboards that can be erected in the city and issues permits to the billboard operators. The two companies that own nearly all billboards in the city filed a lawsuit to declare the tax an unconstitutional violation of their free speech rights. In Lamar Advantage GP v. Cincinnati, the city argues the tax is on the economic activity of the billboard owners, and doesn’t violate free speech rights because it doesn’t threaten the suppression of viewpoints by those who pay or receive donated space to advertise on the billboards.

A public reprimand is recommended for a Poland, Ohio, attorney who notarized estate-planning documents before he visited his clients at their house. The attorney in Mahoning County Bar Association v. Macejko states that he notarized the materials ahead of time because he thought he might forget his notary stamp and seal. Because his wrongdoing was unintentional and caused no harm, the professional conduct rule violation should be dismissed and no sanction imposed, the attorney argues. The bar association responds that the attorney clearly violated his notary duties and that, when he heard nothing further from the clients, made no attempt to retrieve the documents or caution them against using the materials.