Oral arguments were heard this morning by the Ohio Supreme Court over whether a juvenile's family has the right to sue the city of Cuyahoga Falls over an accident at the Natatorium.
Release from Ohio Supreme Court:
Michael L. Hawsman, minor v. City of Cuyahoga Falls et al., Case no. 2011-1588
Ninth District Court of Appeals (Summit County)
ISSUE: Does the exception to political subdivision immunity set forth in R.C. 2744.02(B)(4) for “injury or loss due to physical defects within ... buildings that are used in connection with the performance of a governmental function, including but not limited to office buildings and courthouses ... ” apply to injuries suffered by a patron of a city-owned indoor swimming pool due to alleged faulty maintenance of a diving board?
BACKGROUND: Michael Hawsman, a minor, suffered a knee injury while using a diving board at the Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium, an indoor swimming pool and fitness center owned and operated by the City of Cuyahoga Falls. Hawsman and his parents subsequently filed a civil lawsuit against the city, alleging that Michael’s injury was the result of negligent maintenance of the diving board.
The city moved for summary judgment, claiming that it was immune from civil liability for Michael’s injury under the state’s political subdivision immunity statute, R.C. Chapter 2744. It its pleadings, the city cited the Supreme Court of Ohio’s lead opinion in Cater v. Cleveland (1998), which held in part that the exception to immunity set forth in R.C. 2744.02(B)(4) for injuries incurred in a “government building” did not apply to an indoor swimming pool because a swimming pool is a recreational facility and thus not similar to an “office building or courthouse.” The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, finding that it was immune from the claims asserted by the Hawsmans pursuant to the Cater decision.
The Hawsmans appealed. On review, the Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed the award of summary judgment in favor of the city and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. In its opinion, the Ninth District noted that only one of the Supreme Court justices who decided Cater agreed with the lead opinion’s holding distinguishing buildings used for recreational purposes from other types of government buildings. The court of appeals pointed out that a plurality of the justices in Cater joined a separate opinion indicating that they would hold the city was not immune from liability for injuries the plaintiff suffered in an indoor pool, but joined in the court’s judgment only because that judgment decided the case in favor of the plaintiff, who was permitted to pursue his lawsuit against Cleveland based on a different exception to sovereign immunity.
In light of the ambiguityof Cater regarding the proper application of R.C. 2744.02(B)(4), and a more recent Supreme Court decision, Moore v. Lorain Metro Housing Authority (2009), in which the court held that the exception to immunity for premises liability claims applied not only to injuries suffered in a government “office building or courthouse” but also to injuries suffered in a city-owned housing unit, the Ninth District declined to follow the lead opinion in Cater and instead overturned the trial court’s ruling based on the plurality opinion in Cater and the legal analysis of Moore.
Cuyahoga Falls sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Ninth District’s decision.
Attorneys for the city assert that in Cater the Supreme Court addressed a set of facts virtually identical to this case, and the Ninth District erred by failing to follow Cater’s holding, which has never been overruled or abandoned by the Supreme Court as binding precedent, that injuries incurred in an indoor swimming pool do not fall within the R.C. 2744.02(B)(4) exception to political subdivision immunity.
They also argue that, by placing specific language in the immunity statute that a city may be sued for premises liability claims that arise in buildings used for “governmental purposes” such as office buildings or courthouses, the legislature indicated its intent to preclude such claims if they arise from the public’s use of other types of government-owned facilities, such as those in which patrons voluntarily engage in athletic activities that present a much higher risk of injury.
Attorneys for the Hawsmans respond that if any part of the Cater decision has precedential standing, it is not be the lead opinion but rather the plurality holding that a city-owned indoor swimming pool is a “building used in connection with a governmental function,” and that a city is therefore liable for premises liability claims arising from a plaintiff’s injury in such a building under the exception to immunity set forth in R.C. 2744.02(B)(4).
They point to the statutory language that specifically states the exception to immunity for premises liability claims “is not limited” to office buildings or courthouses, and argue that nothing in the statute distinguishes between buildings used for the “governmental functions” of enacting and administering laws or hearing court cases and the “governmental function” of providing local residents with publicly funded facilities in which to engage in sports and other recreational activities.