The Ohio Supreme Court in the case of Baker v. Wayne County, 2014-2079 ruled in April, 2016 that the county cannot be held legally responsible for the death of a 17 year old who was driving on a county road that was being repaved and had a 4 ½ to 5 inch drop edge drop from the asphalt to the dirt berm. The day before the accident, the portion of the roadway where the collision occurred was paved which added an additional inch of asphalt and created a 4 ½ to 5 inch drop from the edge of the pavement to the berm. During this resurfacing, there were no painted edge lines or additional berm materials added to make the berm level with the road surface. The accident occurred around 6:30 a.m. when one of the tires of the young teen’s vehicle slipped off the edge of the road and she traveled off the right side of the roadway where she struck a concrete deer statue and a tree. Her car caught on fire and she died.
The Supreme Court in its ruling stated that Ohio state and local governments are immune from lawsuits claiming negligent failure to keep public roads in repair when an accident is based on harm caused by the “edge drop” on the side of the road. State law generally exempts governmental bodies from being liable for personal injuries but sets out certain exceptions. One such exception permits a suit caused by “negligent failure to keep public roads in repair and other negligent failure to remove obstructions from public roads”. The court went on to rule that the definition of public roads does not include maintenance of the edge drop off, and the edge drop is not part of the public road.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer noted that the excessive height of the edge of the roadway itself is the issue in this case. He stated that a roadway has depth: “It is not a two-dimensional geometric plane. Just as the edge of a table is part of a table and not part of the floor below, the edge of the roadway is part of the roadway, not part of the shoulder or the berm.”
Expert witnesses for the Plaintiffs stated the Ohio Department of Transportation requires that when an edge drop exceeds 2 inches, there should be traffic controls like orange drums and lights to warn motorists. No such devices were in place where the accident occurred at the time of repaving it. In Justice William O’Neill’s dissenting opinion, he notes the following: “It is simply make-believe to suggest that the portion of the asphalt that dropped off 5 inches to meet the berm on the side of the road is not also part of the road. It is like saying the period at the end of the sentence is not part of the sentence.”