Ohio made national news this weekend when a massive sinkhole in central Toledo opened up, consuming a moving car and its driver. Local elementary principal Amanda Knox was driving along when the road gave way beneath her Chevy Malibu. Luckily, the vehicle landed upright in the crevasse but a pipe had burst, causing water to rush into the hole. Rescue crews quickly arrived, pulling Knox from her vehicle, remarkably unscathed.
City spokesperson Jen Sorgenfrei stated that the collapse of brick sewers beneath a road caused the sinkhole that swallowed the moving car. The Toledo Blade reports, “The sewers — one 30 inches in diameter and the other 36 inches in diameter — were made of brick and constructed in 1891.”
Although the driver in this case was relatively lucky, with many Ohio cities relying on sewer systems over 100 years old, the likelihood of more accidents seems inevitable. This may leave many of our readers wondering who would be responsible in the event of a serious injury or death involving a city sewer. Surely the city would be liable… right? Well, not exactly. Because in 1985, the Ohio legislature passed the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act, a law that states that political subdivisions are immune from some kinds of civil liability. To put it more simply, state law may prevent these governmental entities from being sued by injured parties in certain cases.
There are two different sections of Ohio law dealing with sewer systems:
- A political subdivision is immune from claims based on negligent planning or design of a system or when arising out of an employee’s discretionary act
- A municipality is NOT entitled to immunity for the “maintenance, destruction, operation and upkeep of a sewer system”
In the past, courts have found no immunity exists for the actual maintenance work of a sewer system once it has already been installed, but there is immunity from a lawsuit for any decisions made regarding where to put it, how it should be designed, and even whether the city should service the system at all. In one case, the court held that a city is immune from liability when it exercises its judgment “in determining how to allocate its limited financial resources, with regard to updating the sewer system.” The Ohio Supreme Court has even found that “upkeep” is immune but an “upgrade” is not.
What does this mean? If you have been injured due to the neglect of a political subdivision, it is crucial to contact an experienced lawyer. The laws are complicated and require a comprehensive understanding of statutes and legal precedents. Call 1-800-ELK-OHIO or contact us online to schedule your free consultation. We are available 24/7/365, and we never charge any fees up front. Ask about our no fee promise.
“Giant Sinkhole swallows Car” by Mike Sigov and Taylor Dungjen, Toledo Blade, July 4, 2013.
“Storm Drains and Immunity” by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, Weekly Column, March 6, 2013.
Coleman v. Portage Cty. Engineer, 133 Ohio St.3d 28, 2012-Ohio-3881.
Duvall v. City of Akron, 1991 Ohio App. LEXIS 5381 (Ohio Ct. App., Summit County Nov. 6, 1991).
Keytack v. City of Warren, 11th Dist. No. 2005-T-0152, 2006-Ohio-5179
Shumaker v. Park Lane Manor of Akron, 9th Dist. No. 25212, 2011-Ohio-1052.