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Fireworks Widow to Collect $1.35 Million From Reynoldsburg, Township

2000-1904. Ryll v. Columbus Fireworks Display, 2002-Ohio-2584.
Franklin App. Nos. 99AP-1061 and 99AP-1311. Judgment reversed and cause remanded.
Resnick and Pfeifer, JJ., concur.
Douglas and F.E. Sweeney, JJ., concur in judgment only.
Moyer, C.J., Cook and Lundberg Stratton, JJ., dissent.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/newpdf/0/2002/2002-Ohio-2584.pdf

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(June 19, 2002) Voting 4-3, the Supreme Court ruled that a Central Ohio widow can collect the $1.35 million settlement she agreed to accept for her husband's death in a fireworks accident nearly six years ago.

Daniel Ryll died after being hit by shrapnel as he watched a July 4 display with his family in Reynoldsburg's Huber Park. His wife, Deborah, filed a wrongful death suit against the city, also naming Truro Township - which inspected the site beforehand - as a defendant.

Both defendants filed motions for summary judgment claiming sovereign immunity.

A motion for summary judgment asks the court to rule without a trial. The request is based on the assertion that party who filed the motion should win the case "as a matter of law," or because the evidence is legally insufficient to support a verdict in favor of the other party.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity basically says that the government cannot be sued for negligence. Ohio statutes extend the protection to political subdivisions with few exceptions.

While their motions for summary judgments were pending, the city of Reynoldsburg and Truro Township reached a settlement agreement with Ryll. Reynoldsburg agreed to pay her $750,000 and Truro Township agreed to pay her $600,000 if the motions failed. The trial court later denied both motions.

The city and township appealed, and the 10th District Court of Appeals reversed the common pleas court and granted summary judgments. The appeals court held that Reynoldsburg was immune from the suit and that Truro Township was not liable because it did not have administrative jurisdiction over Huber Park.

The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court. Writing for the majority, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer explained that sponsoring a fireworks display is not a governmental function that would automatically entitle Reynoldsburg to immunity under the law. Furthermore, the city could be held liable for Ryll's death if it were determined that the city acted negligently. "There is evidence in the record that Reynoldsburg designated a [spectator] area closer to the discharge area than called for by [National Fire Protection Association] standards…We conclude there are factual issues that cannot be resolved as a matter of law. Therefore, summary judgment cannot be proper," Justice Pfeifer wrote.

Furthermore, he explained, summary judgment in favor of Truro Township was inappropriate "because Huber Park is not as a matter of law [outside] Truro Township."

"Our reading of the record reveals that Reynoldsburg residents vote for Truro Township trustees and that a former…trustee believes Huber Park to be located within Truro Township. Further, [we believe] that ownership of the park is not relevant."

"The record reveals that Truro Township inspected the premises prior to installation [of the fireworks]. Satisfying this statutory requirement does not necessarily relieve Truro Township from liability for" failure to keep Huber Park free from nuisance, Pfeifer wrote.

"Truro Township knew there was going to be a fireworks display and knew that fireworks displays are potentially lethal. Nothing in the record indicates that Truro Township attempted to determine whether the safety rules required by [statute] were followed."

"We cannot say as a matter of law that Truro Township kept Huber Park free from nuisance. Therefore, summary judgment cannot be proper with respect to nuisance," Pfeifer wrote.

Justice Andrew Douglas wrote a separate concurring opinion asserting that political subdivisions are not entitled to the immunity from liability.

"I believe it to be a proper conclusion that a political subdivision is not entitled to immunity based upon the right to remedy provision of the first sentence of Section 16, Article I [of the Ohio Constitution]," Justice Douglas wrote.

"Additionally, I believe that [Ohio's political subdivision immunity law] violates the right to trial by jury provided for by Section 5, Article I [of the] Ohio Constitution," Justice Douglas wrote.

Justice Deborah Cook wrote in a dissenting opinion that the Supreme Court's consideration of the case was improper because orders denying motions for summary judgment cannot be appealed. The case should have been remanded to the trial court, she said.

"Because there was never a final appealable order rendered by the trial court in this case, this court is without jurisdiction to decide the merits of the cause."

Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton joined Justice Cook's decision.

Keith M. Karr, 614.478.6000, for Deborah Ryll.

Alan Wayne Sheappard, 614.273.3300, and Scyld D. Anderson, 614.273.3300, for the city of Reynoldsburg.

Timothy J. Ryan, 614.228.5151, for Truro Township.