Jeffrey A. Hand, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Defendant-Appellee.
APPEAL from the Court of Claims of Ohio Ct. of Cl. No. 2011-07192
Swope and Swope, and Richard F. Swope, for appellant.
Michael DeWine, Attorney General, and James P. Dinsmore, for appellee.
(¶1} Plaintiff-appellant, Jeffrey A. Hand ("appellant"), filed a negligence action against defendant-appellee, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction ("appellee"). After a bifurcated trial before a magistrate, the magistrate found in favor of appellee on the liability issue. The Court of Claims of Ohio overruled appellant's objections and ruled in appellee's favor. Appellant filed a timely appeal. For the following reasons, we reverse the decision of the Court of Claims.
(¶2} Appellant has been an inmate in the custody and control of appellee at the Grafton Correctional Institution ("GCI") since December 2007. On November 23, 2010, while working as part of the GCI farm program, appellant was injured, breaking his right femur bone, when the tractor he was driving rolled over.
(¶3} Appellant testified that his job assignment on that day was to drive a tractor and haul corn stalks which had previously been baled, from the field to the barn area. He traveled approximately two miles each way. The first tractor he used that day was not a four-wheel drive and the field was muddy, so he needed to trade tractors. The tractor he used was the only available four-wheel drive tractor. The tractor was operable, but needed work because there were problems with the clutch. The tractor would jump or lurch whenever it was put into gear. Appellant stated that the supervisors were aware of the problem. He had operated this tractor "[h]undreds of times" before the accident, but even though he had problems with the clutch "[e]very day, " nothing in particular happened to put him on notice that the tractor would fail. (Tr. 18-19.) He did not make written complaints regarding the tractor, but did make verbal complaints.
(¶4} Appellant described the accident, stating that he drove on State Route 83, made a left turn onto an access road along the field and as he approached the field, he pushed in the clutch, slowed down and put the tractor into second gear. As he entered the turn to the gravel road, the "tractor kicked into gear, shot up on two wheels, went down a little embankment there, fell on the left side and slid to a stop." (Tr. 19.) He estimated he was traveling at six or seven miles per hour. He stated he did not believe he did anything to cause the accident.
(¶5} Terry Cradlebaugh, another inmate at GCI, testified he worked as a part-time mechanic and tractor operator on the farm. He worked on this tractor because of a continuing clutch problem. There were many adjustments made to the clutch, but it was not entirely fixed because he believed the tractor needed a new clutch and pressure plate. Cradlebaugh testified that he was told the needed repairs were not to be made because there were budget problems regarding acquiring new parts. He told Paul Dillon, a correctional farm coordinator, about the problems regarding the clutch.
(¶6} Another inmate who drove tractors, Jeffrey Woods, testified the tractors were driven hard by the inmates and were "raggedy or beat up." The tractors were "junk." (Tr. 107-08.)
(¶7} Dillon, a correctional farm coordinator who was not on duty the day of the accident, testified that he did not have a specific memory of Cradlebaugh telling him that one of the tractors needed clutch repair, but it may have happened. Dillon did say that appellant had complained about the clutch and they had discussions regarding maintenance.
(¶8} Thomas J. Thompson, a corrections officer at GCI was employed as a correctional farm coordinator at the time of the accident. He testified that Cradlebaugh did not tell him there was a problem with the clutch and appellant did not report a problem with the tractor that day. He testified that inmates are told if they are not comfortable running the equipment, they do not have to do so. And if an inmate felt that equipment was unsafe, they were told not to use it. On the day of the accident, he spoke to the farm manager and the highway patrol and, based upon those discussions, he was asked what he believed was the cause of the accident. Appellant's attorney objected and the objection was sustained. (Tr. 132-33.) Subsequently, he was asked if he ever had problems with the clutch improperly engaging and causing the tractor to lurch forward and raise the front wheels off the ground and he responded, "No. The tractor doesn't have the ability to do that[.]" When asked why he believed that, he responded, "Because of the weight of the tractor and the horse power of the tractor." (Tr. 140.) Appellant's attorney again objected and the magistrate overruled the motion to strike the record and said he would weigh the evidence. (Tr. 141.)
(¶9} The magistrate found that appellant failed to establish his claim of negligence. The magistrate further found, as follows:
[T]hat plaintiff failed to take reasonable steps to ensure his own safety and that such a failure was the proximate cause of his injuries. The court finds that the testimony presented regarding the condition of the tractor and its alleged clutch issues was unreliable. The court was not presented with any evidence regarding maintenance performed on the tractor before or after the accident or any other evidence to conclusively establish that the clutch was malfunctioning at the time of the accident. Nevertheless, to the extent that the clutch was malfunctioning, plaintiff testified that he was aware of the issue and had operated the tractor "hundreds of times" prior to the incident. Yet, he chose to operate it on the day in question instead of bringing the problem to the attention of a staff member. In light of the fact that plaintiff had exclusive control ...