In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Ohio reversed two lower court judgments ordering Cleveland Illuminating Company (CEI) and First Energy Services Company to pay about $367,000.00 to a motorcyclist that suffered serious injuries in 2010 when a deer leaped from the side of the road and struck his motorcycle and knocked him off the roadway into a telephone pole.
The Bainbridge Township Trustees widened the roadway where the accident occurred which called for the electric company to relocate about 37 poles. The electric company then revised their plan and reduced the number of poles to be relocated to 24 poles. The electric company again changed its plans and decided not to move 8 additional poles. This was despite the county engineer responding in writing to the electric company expressing concerns that some of the poles would be 4 to 6 feet from the edge of the pavement and inside a 17 foot clear zone which means an unobstructed area beyond the pavement’s edge where a vehicle leaving the road could stop or return safely to the pavement. The injured motorcyclist struck one of the poles that the electric company decided not to move. The electric company also acknowledged that their decision not to move poles was to save money.
The injured party sued the electric companies and the county engineers and a jury found that the electric companies were 46% responsible for the accident, and the township’s engineer 37% responsible. The motorcyclist was found to be 17% responsible. The jury awarded the injured parties $798,000.00 in damages and the trial court ruled that the electric companies were responsible for $367,000.00 of this amount. The decision was appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals which affirmed jury verdict.
Despite the fact that the county engineer responded in writing to the electric company expressing concerns that some of the poles would be 4 to 6 feet from the edge of the pavement and not meeting a 17 foot clear zone, the electric company did not change plans. A second request by the township sent to the electric company urging relocation of the poles received a response that the electric companies would move the poles only at the township’s expense. This is despite a prior accident in May of 2010 when a car swerved off the road to avoid a deer and hit one of the 8 poles the electric company did not move.
The majority decision written by Justice French noted that the electric companies at trial claimed immunity based upon a prior court ruling, Turner v. Ohio Bell, which found that a utility company cannot be held liable when a vehicle collides with a utility pole located off the improved roadway if the company had obtained the required permission to install the pole and the pole does not interfere with the usual and ordinary course of travel. Utility poles never interfere with the usual and ordinary course of travel unless the pole is located on the paved portion of the roadway. The court found that multiple requests made by the township and county engineer demanding the poles be moved was not sufficient under the legal standard.