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Discretionary Immunity Dismissal of Ohio Prisoner’s Negligence Claims Reversed

On March 12, 2013, the Ohio Court of Appeals overturned an earlier discretionary immunity decision and reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s negligence claims on the basis of discretionary immunity.

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) prisoner Ron Foster suffers from various health problems, including a heart condition, a back injury and balance issues.

Dr. Asche, an ODRC employee at the Hocking Correctional Facility, issued a lower-bunk restriction for Foster from August 17, 2009 to September 2, 2009. When he re-evaluated Foster on September 3, however, Dr. Asche did not renew the lower-bunk restriction.

Foster was moved to a top bunk on September 3, 2009 and fell from it later the same day. He claimed he suffered serious injuries as a result of the fall – including the “total loss of use of his right arm.”

Foster filed a state court negligence action against the ODRC in September 2011, seeking damages of $25,000. The trial court granted the ODRC’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Foster’s claims failed as a matter of law because prison officials were entitled to discretionary immunity under Brown v. Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 2011 Ohio 3652 (Ohio Ct. App. 2011).

Foster appealed and the Ohio Court of Appeals reversed, overturning Brown and following the state Supreme Court’s decisions in Reynolds v. State Div. of Parole and Community Servs., 14 Ohio St.3d 68, 471 N.E.2d 776 (Ohio 1984) and Semadini v. Ohio Dept. of Transp., 75 Ohio St.3d 128, 661 N.E.2d 1013 (Ohio 1996).

“Many state employees are called upon to exercise a high degree of discretion while working,” the appellate court wrote. “Were we to find that discretionary immunity applies every time a state employee exercises discretion in performing his or her job, we would be vastly expanding the scope of the discretionary immunity doctrine while simultaneously limiting the scope of the state’s waiver of sovereign immunity from liability as established by the Court of Claims Act. R.C. 2743.02(A)(1).”

Following Reynolds, the Court of Appeals noted that discretionary immunity is available under Ohio law only upon a showing of “the exercise of a high degree of official judgment or discretion as to an executive or planning function involving the making of a basic policy decision.”

The ODRC had failed to make the requisite showing, thus was not entitled to discretionary immunity as to Foster’s negligence claims. See: Foster v. Ohio Dept of Rehab. & Corr., 2013 Ohio App. LEXIS 812 (Ohio Ct. App. 2013).

Additional source: Columbus Dispatch

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