Full text of the Court's opinion

On January 28, 2010, the Ohio Supreme Court clarified the extent of the "public-duty rule," a common-law doctrine which immunized municipal employees from tort liability for actions undertaken with respect to a citizen absent a "special duty" owed to the injured person. Estate of Graves v. Circleville (2010), Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio- 168. In affirming the Fourth District Court of Appeals, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the public-duty rule is not applicable in civil actions brought against employees of political subdivisions for wanton or reckless conduct.

Justice O'Connor authored the majority opinion. Chief Justice Moyer and Justices Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, concurred in the majority opinion. Justice Pfeifer concurred in a separate opinion.

Factual Background

Estate of Graves arises from the death of two individuals in an automobile accident. Cornelius Copley, a recidivist drunk driver, was the person responsible for the accident. He had been arrested on July 4, 2003 for driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. The next day, Copley was released from jail, whereupon he returned to the police station to retrieve his vehicle. There had been no hold placed on his vehicle, and thus it was released to him.

The next morning, July 6, 2003, Copley drove his vehicle while intoxicated and collided with Jillian Graves's vehicle, killing him and Graves.

Proceedings Below

The Graves Estate sued the City of Circleville, claiming the City and its police officers had breached their duties to Graves by failing to remove Copley's license plates and releasing Copley's vehicle, despite the fact that various statutory provisions required a hold to have been placed on Copley's vehicle. The Estate argued that the officers acted wantonly, recklessly, and with complete disregard for the foreseeable consequences of their actions by releasing the car to Copley.

At the trial level, the officers moved for summary judgment, arguing: (1) they owed no duty to Graves under the public-duty rule, and (2) they were immune from liability because there was no evidence that they acted wantonly or recklessly. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment without considering the applicability of the public-duty rule. Instead, the trial court found that the matter was governed by the immunity statute, R.C. Chapter 2744, and that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the officers had acted in a wanton and reckless manner. See R.C. § 2744.03(A)(6)(b) (providing a statutory exception to immunity in cases of wanton and reckless conduct).

On appeal, the Fourth District Court of Appeals found that the public-duty rule remained viable, but that it was not applicable in the context of wanton or reckless conduct. Estate of Graves v. Circleville, 179 Ohio App.3d 479, 2008-Ohio-6052.

The Supreme Court of Ohio accepted jurisdiction over the case to determine whether the public-duty rule bars liability against the officers.

Disposition

The Supreme Court held that the public-duty rule adopted in Sawicki v. Ottawa Hills (1988), 37 Ohio St.3d 222, did not apply to cases alleging wanton or reckless conduct.

In limiting the applicability of the public-duty rule, Estate of Graves provides a tutorial regarding the progression of statutory sovereign immunity in Ohio. The public-duty rule was adopted in 1988 in Sawicki. The events giving rise to Sawicki occurred on September 17, 1981, after judicial abrogation of common-law sovereign immunity, but prior to the General Assembly?s enactment of the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act in 1985. Thus, Sawicki was rendered in an "immunity vacuum," at a time when there was no immunity for a political subdivision or its employees.

Today, however, Revised Code Chapter 2744 provides political subdivisions and their employees with immunity from suit. Therefore, there is no need to resort to common-law declarations of municipal immunity as enunciated in Sawicki.

In denying the applicability of the public-duty rule, the Supreme Court expressly deferred to the General Assembly's enactment of the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act. The Court found that its application of the public-duty rule to the facts in Estate of Graves would contravene an unambiguous statutory mandate and render R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b) meaningless.

Estate of Graves limits the reach of the common-law public-duty rule rather than abrogating it altogether. Nonetheless, the decision indicates that the common-law doctrine has much less significance (if any) in today?s environment in which political subdivisions and their employees are afforded immunity from suit under the Ohio Revised Code.