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Can Ohio government entities (like cities and school districts) and officials (like police officers) be successfully sued for negligence?

Generally, and with a few notable exceptions including circumstances arising out of a plaintiff's public employment—no.

Political-subdivision immunity in Ohio

An Ohio political subdivision like a city or school district facing a personal-injury or negligence claim will avail itself of the broad grant of immunity from liability for damages related to any injury, death, or other loss resulting from its acts or omissions, or those of its employees. R.C. 2744.02 first grants political subdivisions immunity from such tort claims, then carves out several exceptions to that immunity, and then carves out exceptions to several of those exceptions.

Even if a claim survives a motion to dismiss under Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the school can still avail itself of several defenses available under R.C. 2744.03. And even if a claim is successful, R.C. 2744.05 generally caps damages at $250,000 for anything beyond the plaintiff’s “actual losses.”

Immunity: The statute starts with a broad grant of immunity “for injury, death, or loss to person or property allegedly caused by any act or omission of the political subdivision or an employee of the political subdivision in connection with a governmental or proprietary function.” (R.C. 2744.02(A).)

Exceptions: Notwithstanding the general grant of immunity, R.C. 2744.02(B) imposes liability for negligent conduct resulting in injury, death, or loss to person or property in specified situations:

  • Operation of a motor vehicle. This exception does not apply to police, fire, or EMS responding to an emergency.
  • Performance of “proprietary functions,” a term that is not particularly coherently defined but includes operation of hospitals, cemeteries, sewers, stadiums, and parking facilities and other functions that are often provided by private actors. This exception does not apply to oversight of community schools or to voluntary cleanup of contaminated lands.
  • Road maintenance.
  • Damages caused by employees and due to physical defects in or on the grounds of buildings used for governmental functions.
  • Civil liability is otherwise expressly imposed by law.

Defenses: Despite those carveouts from immunity, R.C. 2744.03 provides several very broad defenses. Most relevant for our purposes are the defenses that the conduct:

  • was “necessary or essential to the exercise of powers of the political subdivision or employee”;
  • was “within the discretion of the employee with respect to policy-making, planning, or enforcement powers by virtue of the duties and responsibilities of the office or position of the employee”; or
  • constituted an “exercise of judgment or discretion in determining whether to acquire, or how to use, equipment, supplies, materials, personnel, facilities, and other resources unless the judgment or discretion was exercised with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner.”

The individual tortfeasor also enjoys personal immunity unless:

  • His conduct was manifestly outside the scope of employment;
  • He acted with recklessness, maliciousness, etc.; or
  • Civil liability is otherwise expressly imposed by law.

Damages: Even when a plaintiff can survive all that, the court will still limit damages. Compensatory damages are unlimited for “actual losses” such as medical expenses, wages, and property damage, but they are offset by any insurance benefits the plaintiff is entitled to receive. Compensatory damages are also capped—except in wrongful-death cases—for other damages, such as attorney’s fees, pain and suffering, mental anguish, and “any other intangible loss.” Punitive damages are againt political subdivisions are often prohibited, except where the dispute arises out of a public employee's employment.

Federal constitutional limitations: Years ago, in a case called DeShaney v. Winnebago County, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court held, effectively, that we generally have no due-process right to have our government officials do their jobs properly to protect us from private actors. This generally means that except under rare circumstances, there is no federal constitutional cause of action against police, other government officials, or local governments that fail to do their jobs correctly, resulting in harm to us. Even if we theoretically do have such a cause of action, federal courts are likely to grand "qualified immunity" to local government officials, freeing them from any accountability.

Contact The Chandra Law Firm LLC for help

You'll want The Chandra Law Firm LLC on your side as you navigate all of the defenses the government has at its disposal for harms it has caused you. You can reach our firm, which serves clients throughout Ohio and the nation, by calling 216-578-1700 or by filling out our online contact form.

At Chandra Law, your case is our cause.®

Related Practice Areas
Government Ethics, Misconduct, Fraud, & AbusePolice Misconduct & BrutalityMalicious Prosecution, Abuse of Process, and False Arrest

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