In this case the Ohio Supreme Court determined that a municipality was not liable for injury to a motorist due to an obscured stop sign.

Traveling on a street, Pelletier drove through a stop sign, hit another vehicle, and was injured. She did not see the stop sign, obscured by foliage 34 feet from the intersection. She sued the municipality for failure to keep a public road in repair. She won her right to proceed with her case in the trial court and in the appellate court. The Supreme Court reversed.

Before getting into the weeds, some background is necessary. The parties supporting the municipality with amicus briefs were various municipalities, the Ohio Municipal League, Ohio Township Association and so on. One amicus brief was filed by the Ohio Association of Justice, a claimants’ organization.

At this point I draw on my past experience as Law Director for the City of Lima. As Law Director I would be brought in on liability issues involving the City. It always amazed me that public officials elevated protections from lawsuits over their responsibility to their citizens. This may sound like heresy, but my position was that the City has an obligation to not negligently injure citizens, and if it did injure them, to fairly compensate them. The City’s duty was to be fair. Some would say, that such a policy opens pandora’s box to lawsuits. It does not, and it did not when I was law director. What it did for 4 short years, is change priorities.

The problem with immunity is the argument I often heard. “Sure its dangerous, but if we change it, that is an admission that we were wrong, so we will not do anything”

Turning to the case at hand, the statute, R.C. 2744.02(B)(3), provides that

[P]olitical subdivisions are liable for injury, death, or loss to person or property caused by their negligent failure to keep public roads in repair and other negligent failure to remove obstructions from public roads.

Also involved was 2744.01 which indicated that the tree lawn was not part of the road, unless the Manual of Uniform Traffic Devices required a stop sign – which in this case the Manual did require a stop sign.

The Supreme Court made two holdings. It got hung up on the word “from” in the statute. It decided that since the stop sign was not physically on the roadway, the City had no duty to remove the obstruction to vision. It went on to hold, however, that since the foliage was not touching the stop sign, the city had no obligation to remove the foliage.

This is absurd reasoning. A Supreme Court can decide issues based on policy. The core issue is what is best for the motoring public – that stop signs, and traffic lights be visible to assure the safe flow of traffic, or that political subdivisions can turn a blind eye to unsafe conditions.

I have no problem with the municipality arguing no duty to clear the obstruction, until it had, or should have had, notice of the obstruction. If that is the case, then there should be no liability, assuming reasonable diligence on the part of the municipality. But once the municipality knew or should have known of the danger, it should be responsible to correct the hazard.

Chief Justice O’Connor got it right in her opinion

[T]his court should focus its inquiry on whether the public road (in this case a stop sign) is blocked in a way that renders the stop sign wholly unserviceable, not merely difficult to see.

If liability had been found, then political subdivisions would have to instruct their employees to keep an eye out for obstructed traffic control devices when they were doing their routine duties and report obstructions. Is that a big deal?

This case, I predict, will be limited in the future. What about traffic lights? They are not on the street – they are over the street. The Court will probably have to say that over, means from. There will be all kinds of parsing just where “from” begins and ends and when is a “touch” a touch.

The real issue should have been what is best for the motoring public.