Argabrite v. Neer, 2015–0348.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio
Writing for the CourtFRENCH, J.
Citation149 Ohio St.3d 349,2016 Ohio 8374,75 N.E.3d 161
Parties ARGABRITE, Appellant, v. NEER et al. Appellees.
Docket NumberNo. 2015–0348.,2015–0348.
Decision Date27 December 2016

149 Ohio St.3d 349
75 N.E.3d 161
2016 Ohio 8374

ARGABRITE, Appellant,
v.
NEER et al.
Appellees.

No. 2015–0348.

Supreme Court of Ohio.

Submitted Feb. 9, 2016.
Decided Dec. 27, 2016.


75 N.E.3d 162

Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz, L.P.A., and Kenneth J. Ignozzi, for appellant.

Surdyk, Dowd & Turner Co., L.P.A., Joshua R. Schierloh, and Edward J. Dowd, Dayton, for appellees Jim Neer and Gregory Stites.

Mathias H. Heck Jr., Montgomery County Prosecuting Attorney, and Laura G. Mariani and Lynne R. Nothstine, Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys, for appellees Anthony Ball and Daniel Adkins.

Schroeder, Maundrell, Barbiere & Powers, Lawrence E. Barbiere, and Kurt M. Irey, Mason, for appellee John DiPietro.

Valore & Gordillo, L.L.P., and Gregory A. Gordillo, Cleveland, urging reversal for amicus curiae Ohio Employment Lawyers Association.

Ginger S. Bock Law Office, Inc., and Ginger S. Bock, Cincinnati; Landskroner, Grieco, Merriman, L.L.C., and Drew Legando, Cleveland; and Traska Law Firm, L.L.C., and Peter D. Traska, urging reversal for amicus curiae Ohio Association for Justice.

Joseph Deters, Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney, and Christian J. Schaefer, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, urging affirmance for amicus curiae Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

75 N.E.3d 163

FRENCH, J.

149 Ohio St.3d 349

{¶ 1} In this appeal, we consider the level of culpability necessary to hold a police officer liable for injuries suffered by innocent third parties as the result of a high-speed police pursuit. In particular, we consider a scenario in which the fleeing suspect's vehicle collides with a vehicle occupied by the third party. The Second District Court of Appeals held that as a matter of law, a police officer who pursues a suspect is not the proximate cause of injuries to a third party unless the officer's conduct is extreme and outrageous. 2015-Ohio-125, 26 N.E.3d 879, ¶ 5, 7 (2d Dist.). We reject that standard because it is contrary to the express dictates of R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b), which prescribes a defense or immunity that political-subdivision employees may assert to establish their nonliability in a civil action for damages. Nevertheless, applying the correct standard, we conclude that none of the officers involved here could be held liable for damages as a result of their actions. Accordingly, we affirm the Second District's judgment in their favor, albeit on different grounds.

Background

{¶ 2} In July 2011, appellant, Pamela Argabrite, was injured in a motor-vehicle accident that she alleges was the direct result of a high-speed police chase involving officers from the Miami Township Police Department and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department. Argabrite filed a negligence action in the

149 Ohio St.3d 350

Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas against appellees Jim Neer, Gregory Stites, and John DiPietro—employees of the Miami Township Police Department—and appellees Tony Ball and Daniel Adkins—employees of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department. (We refer to appellees, collectively, as "the officers.") She alleged that the officers, while acting within the course and scope of their employment, engaged in a high-speed chase of a suspect—Andrew Barnhart—that ended when Barnhart's vehicle struck Argabrite's vehicle head-on, killing Barnhart and seriously injuring Argabrite. She claimed that the officers are not entitled to governmental immunity because their actions were willful, wanton, reckless or malicious.

{¶ 3} The officers moved for summary judgment on two distinct grounds. First, they argued that, as a matter of law, their actions were not the proximate cause of Argabrite's injuries because their conduct was not extreme or outrageous. In support of that argument, they cited Whitfield v. Dayton, 167 Ohio App.3d 172, 2006-Ohio-2917, 854 N.E.2d 532 (2d Dist.), overruled in part on other grounds, Anderson v. Massillon, 134 Ohio St.3d 380, 2012-Ohio-5711, 983 N.E.2d 266. Second, the officers argued that they are entitled to immunity as employees of political subdivisions under R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b) because they did not act "with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton and reckless manner."

{¶ 4} The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the officers based on Whitfield, in which the Second District applied a rule that "when police officers pursue a fleeing violator who injures a third party, the officers' pursuit is not the proximate cause of the injuries unless their conduct was outrageous or extreme." Id. at ¶ 22, citing Lewis v. Bland, 75 Ohio App.3d 453, 599 N.E.2d 814 (9th Dist.1991). The trial court stated that no reasonable juror could conclude that the officers engaged in extreme or outrageous conduct and, therefore, no reasonable juror could conclude that the officers' actions were the proximate cause of the accident.

{¶ 5} On appeal, the Second District likewise applied the no-proximate-cause

75 N.E.3d 164

rule from Whitfield and affirmed the trial court's entry of summary judgment. We accepted Argabrite's discretionary appeal. 143 Ohio St.3d 1440, 2015-Ohio-3427, 36 N.E.3d 188.

Analysis

Statutory political-subdivision immunity

{¶ 6} We begin our analysis by looking to relevant statutes that cloak employees of political subdivisions with immunity. R.C. Chapter 2744 sets out circumstances under which political subdivisions and their employees are liable in tort in connection with governmental and proprietary functions. Political-subdivision

149 Ohio St.3d 351

immunity is an affirmative defense. Whitehall ex rel. Wolfe v. Ohio Civ. Rights Comm., 74 Ohio St.3d 120, 123, 656 N.E.2d 684 (1995).

{¶ 7} Argabrite asserts claims against political-subdivision employees. We therefore turn to R.C. 2744.03(A), which prescribes defenses or immunities that an employee of a political subdivision may assert to establish nonliability in a civil action for damages allegedly caused by an act or omission in connection with a governmental or proprietary function. As relevant here, an employee of a political subdivision is immune from liability unless the employee's acts or omissions were "with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner." R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b). This standard applies to law-enforcement officers just as it applies to other employees of political subdivisions. See Fabrey v. McDonald Village Police Dept., 70 Ohio St.3d 351, 356, 639 N.E.2d 31 (1994).

{¶ 8} We focus here on the phrase "wanton or reckless manner." This court has defined "wanton misconduct" as "the failure to exercise any care toward those to whom a duty of care is owed in circumstances in which there is great probability that harm will result." (Emphasis added.) Anderson, 134 Ohio St.3d 380, 2012-Ohio-5711, 983 N.E.2d 266, at paragraph three of the syllabus. And we have defined "reckless conduct" as conduct "characterized by the conscious disregard of or indifference to a known or obvious risk of harm to another that is unreasonable under the circumstances and is substantially greater than negligent conduct." Id. at paragraph four of the syllabus. These are rigorous standards that will in most circumstances be difficult to establish, especially with respect to a law-enforcement officer carrying out the statutory duty to arrest and detain a person violating the law. See R.C. 2935.03(A)(1).

Conflict between no-proximate-cause rule and statutory immunity

{¶ 9} Both the trial court and the appellate court in this case acknowledged R.C. 2744.03(A)(6) and its applicability to police officers. But rather than analyzing this case under the immunity statute, both courts skipped the question of immunity and applied the judicially created no-proximate-cause rule from Whitfield and Lewis.

{¶ 10} When a plaintiff files a civil action against an employee of a political subdivision, the employee's entitlement to statutory immunity is a separate question from the plaintiff's ability to establish the elements of his or her claim. Here, for example, if the officers had acted recklessly, they would not be entitled to immunity, but they could still avoid liability by establishing that their reckless actions were not the proximate cause of Argabrite's injuries. Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion accuses the majority of blurring the distinction between the affirmative defense of immunity and the tort element of proximate cause, but that charge is a nonstarter. It is the no-proximate-cause rule itself that blurs those

149 Ohio St.3d 352

distinctions by incorporating concepts related to duty

75 N.E.3d 165

and breach that are part of the statutory-immunity standards, into the question of proximate cause.

{¶ 11} The no-proximate-cause rule is admittedly phrased in terms of proximate cause—an element of a tort...

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87 practice notes
  • Browne v. Artex Oil Co., No. 2018-0942
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • November 26, 2019
    ...in favor of Artex. Our review is therefore de novo, and we must "consider the evidence as if for the first time." Argabrite v. Neer , 149 Ohio St.3d 349, 2016-Ohio-8374, 75 N.E.3d 161, ¶ 14. For this reason, we must conduct our own examination of the record, Murphy v. Reynoldsburg , 65 Ohio......
  • Hoffman v. Gallia Cnty. Sheriff's Office, No. 17CA2
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Ohio)
    • December 12, 2017
    ...initially note that appellate courts conduct a de novo review of a trial court's summary judgment decision. E.g. , Argabrite v. Neer , 149 Ohio St.3d 349, 2016-Ohio-8374, 75 N.E.3d 161, ¶ 14 (stating that "court reviews a grant of summary judgment de novo"); Bohlen v. Anadarko E & P Onshore......
  • Montgomery v. Saleh, Nos. 117,518
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Kansas
    • March 30, 2018
    ...suspect to drive the van in an attempt to elude apprehension, then it is a proximate cause of the accident); Argabrite v. Neer , 149 Ohio St. 3d 349, 352, 75 N.E.3d 161 (2016) (overruling a previous case holding that a pursuing officer could not be a proximate cause); Oklahoma v. Gurich , 2......
  • Stewart v. City of Euclid, No. 18-3767
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • August 14, 2020
    ...harm to another that is unreasonable under the circumstances and is substantially greater than negligent conduct." Argabrite v. Neer , 149 Ohio St.3d 349, 75 N.E.3d 161, 164 (2016).This court has previously endorsed the view that under Ohio law, "if the trier of fact were to find that [the ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
99 cases
  • Hoffman v. Gallia Cnty. Sheriff's Office, 17CA2
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Ohio)
    • December 12, 2017
    ...initially note that appellate courts conduct a de novo review of a trial court's summary judgment decision. E.g. , Argabrite v. Neer , 149 Ohio St.3d 349, 2016-Ohio-8374, 75 N.E.3d 161, ¶ 14 (stating that "court reviews a grant of summary judgment de novo"); Bohlen v. Anadarko E & P Onshore......
  • Browne v. Artex Oil Co., 2018-0942
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • November 26, 2019
    ...in favor of Artex. Our review is therefore de novo, and we must "consider the evidence as if for the first time." Argabrite v. Neer , 149 Ohio St.3d 349, 2016-Ohio-8374, 75 N.E.3d 161, ¶ 14. For this reason, we must conduct our own examination of the record, Murphy v. Reynoldsburg , 65 Ohio......
  • Montgomery v. Saleh, s. 117,518
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Kansas
    • March 30, 2018
    ...suspect to drive the van in an attempt to elude apprehension, then it is a proximate cause of the accident); Argabrite v. Neer , 149 Ohio St. 3d 349, 352, 75 N.E.3d 161 (2016) (overruling a previous case holding that a pursuing officer could not be a proximate cause); Oklahoma v. Gurich , 2......
  • Stewart v. City of Euclid, 18-3767
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • August 14, 2020
    ...harm to another that is unreasonable under the circumstances and is substantially greater than negligent conduct." Argabrite v. Neer , 149 Ohio St.3d 349, 75 N.E.3d 161, 164 (2016).This court has previously endorsed the view that under Ohio law, "if the trier of fact were to find that [the ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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