Ciotto v. Hinkle

Decision Date20 September 2019
Docket NumberNo. H-18-011,H-18-011
Citation2019 Ohio 3809,145 N.E.3d 1013
Parties The ESTATE OF Linda CIOTTO, et al., Appellants v. Billie A. HINKLE, Appellee
CourtOhio Court of Appeals

DECISION AND JUDGMENT

ZMUDA, J.

I. Introduction

{¶ 1} This matter is before the court on appeal from a judgment of the Huron County Court of Common Pleas, granting summary judgment and dismissing the claims of appellants, The Estate of Linda Ciotto, Deceased, Mary Ciotto and Michael Blair, individually and as co-administrators of the Estate, and Christopher Blair.1 For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

A. Background

{¶ 2} On July 28, 2015, James Blair took his mother's loaded, unsecured gun from her bedroom, went next door, shot Linda Ciotto to death, and mutilated her body with her lawnmower because he was enraged that she mowed her lawn after dusk. His mother, appellee Billie Hinkle, had given Blair permission to move in with her about a year and a half earlier, after Blair lost his job. Blair is currently serving a life sentence for the murder.

{¶ 3} On July 25, 2016, appellants filed their claim against appellee, seeking damages for negligence and wrongful death, and for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.2 After the parties engaged in discovery, appellee moved for summary judgment on January 19, 2018, arguing the absence of any legal duty owed as to the negligence and wrongful death claims, and the lack of evidence to support the emotional distress claims. Finding no genuine issues of fact related to the appellants' claims, the trial court granted summary judgment, disposing of appellants' amended complaint in its entirety.

B. Assignments of Error

{¶ 4} This appeal followed, with appellants asserting the following assignments of error:

I. The trial court's granting of summary judgment to Appellee on Appellant's [sic] negligence and wrongful death claims was error since reasonable minds could conclude the Appellee was negligent under the circumstances and that harm to Appellants' decedent was foreseeable.
II. As a matter of law, the trial court erred in granting Appellee summary judgment on Appellants' negligence and wrongful death claims since genuine issues of material fact exist on whether Appellee had a "special relationship" with James Blair, and, thus, a duty to exercise control over him.
III. The trial court improperly granted summary judgment on the Appellants' negligent infliction of emotional distress claim despite evidence from which the reasonable jury could conclude that Appellee failed to report the presence of the decedent's corpse delaying its proper handling by hours and causing serious emotional distress to the decedent's surviving adult children.
IV. Since reasonable minds could differ on whether Appellee's conduct in failing to report the shooting and presence of a corpse; and hiding the murder weapon and lying about [its] location was extreme and outrageous and caused the Appellants' serious emotional distress, genuine issues of material fact existed regarding Appellants' claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress which prohibited the granting of summary judgment.3
II. Summary Judgment

{¶ 5} Appellants argue genuine issues of fact remain as to each of their claims, challenging the trial court's determinations relative to the duty owed by appellee and the existence of disputed facts to support the emotional distress claims of appellants. Therefore, they contend, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment.

{¶ 6} The parties largely agree on the facts of this case. Appellee's 50 year-old son took appellee's loaded handgun, without her permission, walked next door to the house of appellant's decedent, Ciotto, and shot her as she mowed her lawn, resulting in her death. At the time of the murder, Blair lived with appellee, was unemployed, and rarely ventured out of appellee's house. Blair owned his own firearm, but had accessed appellee's handgun on two occasions a year before the murder, shooting it in the air from appellee's back deck after he had been drinking. Appellee ordered Blair to leave her firearm alone, and Blair complied for about a year, up until the night of the murder.

{¶ 7} The detailed recitation of the facts, provided by appellants, paints a picture that is shocking and horrific. There is no dispute, moreover, that Blair murdered Ciotto, mutilated her body, and then returned home to his bedroom, behaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

Despite the fact that Blair's criminal actions directly caused the death, appellants filed suit against appellee, seeking to hold her liable for Blair's conduct. Based on existing legal precedent, the trial court determined, as a matter of law, that appellee was entitled to summary judgment as to all claims against her.

{¶ 8} We review the trial court's ruling on summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the trial court. Bonacorsi v. Wheeling & Lake Erie Ry. Co. , 95 Ohio St.3d 314, 2002-Ohio-2220, 767 N.E.2d 707, ¶ 24.

{¶ 9} As provided by Civ.R. 56(C), summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates: "(1) that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact; (2) that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law; and (3) that reasonable minds can come to but one conclusion, and that conclusions is adverse to the party against whom the motion for summary judgment is made, who is entitled to have the evidence construed most strongly in his favor." Harless v. Willis Day Warehousing Co. , 54 Ohio St.2d 64, 66, 375 N.E.2d 46 (1978).

{¶ 10} In reviewing the trial court's judgment, we examine the evidence to determine whether a genuine issue of material fact remains in dispute. "A ‘material’ fact is one which would affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law." (Citation omitted.) Noe v. Keller, 6th Dist. Lucas No. L-12-1199, 2013-Ohio-2251, 2013 WL 2404805, ¶ 27.

{¶ 11} In this case, the parties largely agree on the material, underlying facts. The dispute, instead, concerns the legal significance of these facts as they relate to the duty owed in negligence, and as to the support for the emotional distress claims. Appellants' assignments of error fall into two categories, challenging the trial court's determinations relative to the duty owed by appellee and whether the existence of disputed facts support the emotional distress claims of appellants. We will address each of appellants' assignments of error accordingly.

A. Duty

{¶ 12} Appellants asserted claims against appellee that are based on negligence and wrongful death. An action for wrongful death is a statutory claim, permitting recovery of damages for the decedent's estate, where "the death of a person is caused by wrongful act, neglect, or default which would have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued[.]" R.C. 2125.01. In this case, appellants alleged negligence as the wrongful act.

{¶ 13} To prevail on a negligence claim, appellants must demonstrate the existence of a duty, breach of that duty, and a resulting injury. Mussivand v. David , 45 Ohio St.3d 314, 318, 544 N.E.2d 265 (1989). "While negligence actions always involve mixed questions of law and fact, the existence of a duty is, in the first instance a question of law for the court." Clemets v. Heston , 20 Ohio App.3d 132, 134-135, 485 N.E.2d 287 (6th Dist.1985).

{¶ 14} The allegations of negligence in appellants' amended complaint include a mixture of averments referencing both affirmative conduct under premises liability and a failure to act to control or prevent the criminal conduct of a third party. The allegations include the following:

At all relevant times herein, Defendant Hinkle had a duty to use ordinary care in controlling and maintaining her premises.
Despite knowing about James Blair's mental instability and the danger he posed as described above, Defendant Hinkle unreasonably allowed James Blair to store firearms on her premises.
At all times relevant, Defendant Hinkle had the duty to use ordinary care in securing and storing her firearm under the circumstances.
Upon information and belief, Defendant Hinkle knew, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known, that leaving her firearm unsecured, loaded and within easy access of her adult son, James Blair, presented an unreasonable risk of harm to the public including, but not limited to, Plaintiffs' decedent, given James Blair's mental instability and prior misconduct.
Notwithstanding Defendant Hinkle's knowledge of the danger described above, Defendant Hinkle continued to unreasonably and carelessly store her loaded firearm in a location known to her adult son, James Blair, who resided in her home.
In addition to Defendant Hinkle generally knowing about the unreasonable danger this situation posed to the public, on the evening of July 28, 2015 in particular, defendant Hinkle knew that James Blair was extremely agitated, unstable and, more particularly, irate with Plaintiffs' decedent.4
* * * Despite Defendant Hinkle knowing about James Blair's extreme anger toward Plaintiffs' decedent, his unstable mental condition generally and the danger he posed to Plaintiffs' decedent, defendant Hinkle unreasonably and carelessly failed to take any measures to hide, unload or otherwise secure her firearm that was openly stored in her bedroom.
As a direct and proximate result of the Defendant Hinkle's negligence described above, James Blair had unfettered access to, and use of, Defendant Hinkle's loaded firearm which he used to fatally shoot Plaintiffs' decedent in the head on the evening of July 28, 2015.
As a proximate result of the Defendant's negligent conduct described above, Plaintiffs' decedent suffered conscious pain and suffering, and ultimately her premature death.

{¶ 15} Based on the pleading, appellants argue theories of duty that lack support under existing Ohio law, whether the alleged duty...

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