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Fraley v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District

July 9, 2019

Duane Fraley, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction, Defendant-Appellee,

          APPEAL from the Court of Claims of Ohio No. 2016-00709JD

         On brief:

          Swope and Swope, and Richard F Swope, for appellant.

         Argued:

          Richard F Swope.

         On brief:

          [Dave Yost], Attorney General, and Eric A. Walker, for appellee.

         Argued:

          Eric A. Walker.

          DECISION

          SADLER, J.

         {¶ 1} Plaintiff-appellant, Duane Fraley, appeals from a judgment of the Court of Claims of Ohio, in favor of defendant-appellee, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction ("DRC"). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         {¶ 2} The facts of the case are largely undisputed. At all relevant times, appellant was an inmate at DRC's Pickaway Correctional Institution ("PCI"). On June 14, 2016, appellant and the other inmates from appellant's unit were walking to the dining hall along the concrete walkway adjacent to the dormitory. The sidewalk passed alongside an exterior concrete stairwell with a set of concrete stairs descending to the lower tier of the unit, below ground level, and an opposing set of concrete stairs ascending to the upper tier of the dormitory.

         {¶ 3} The descending stairwell was guarded by a handrail constructed of round metal pipes with a long horizontal top rail connected to shorter vertical rails at either end. The vertical pipes were screwed into a metal flange bolted into the concrete sidewalk. Another metal pipe ran horizontally under the top handrail and was connected to the two vertical rails by a T-shaped metal fitting. A magistrate of the Court of Claims described the events of June 14, 2016 as follows:

[Appellant] asserted that he was having trouble with his foot and paused by the end of the railing close to a concrete abutment for the descending stairwell to give his foot a break. [Appellant] estimated that he traveled approximately 50 feet when he stopped to rest his foot. Initially [appellant] testified that he was bumped, tried to catch himself on the "structure," and regained consciousness while he was lying at the bottom of the stairwell. (Plaintiff s Exhibit 2). However, [appellant] admitted that in a deposition he stated that he did not specifically remember someone bumping into him. [Appellant] further admitted that he did not remember any bumping or pushing prior to falling in the stairwell. [Appellant] added that he does not recall any part of his body coming into contact with the handrail by the stairwell and that he does not recall the handrail breaking. Ultimately, [appellant] acknowledged that he does not know how or why he fell.

(May 18, 2018 Mag.'s Decision at 2.)[1]

         {¶ 4} On September 22, 2016, appellant filed a complaint against DRC asserting a claim of negligence. The complaint alleges that "the handrail was old and defective, all of which was known to [DRC] before June 14, 2016," and that DRC was "negligent in failing to warn or repair, replace, or direct inmates away from the defective railing, all of which [DRC] was aware of, and in fact directed heavy pedestrian traffic past this dangerous area." (Sept. 22, 2016 Compl. at ¶ 1-2.)

         {¶ 5} DRC denied liability and the case was tried to a magistrate of the Court of Claims on the issue of liability. The magistrate issued a decision recommending judgment in favor of DRC as to appellant's negligence claim. Appellant filed an objection to the magistrate's decision. In his objection, appellant alleged that "[t]he [m]agistrate erred, as a matter of law, finding the concrete to which the rail was attached did not contribute to the handrail breaking," and "[t]he [m]agistrate erred in determining the [DRC] did not have constructive notice that the handrail was defective and posed an unreasonable hazard to inmates." (July 13, 2018 Objs. to Mag.'s Decision at 1.)

         {¶ 6} Appellant filed a partial transcript of the proceedings before the magistrate in support of the objections. The partial transcript contains the trial testimony of PCI employees Justin Swanson and Larry Parker. The Court of Claims overruled appellant's objections and adopted the magistrate's decision as its own.

         {¶ 7} Appellant appealed to this court from the judgment of the Court of Claims.

         II. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

         {¶ 8} Appellant assigns the following as trial court error:

[1.] THE TRIAL COURT AND THE MAGISTRATE ERRED, AS A MATTER OF LAW, FINDING THE CONCRETE TO WHICH THE RAIL WAS ATTACHED DID NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE HANDRAIL BREAKING.
[2.] THE TRIAL COURT AND MAGISTRATE ERRED IN DETERMINING THE DEFENDANT-APPELLEE DID NOT HAVE CONSTRUCTIVE NOTICE THAT THE HANDRAIL WAS DEFECTIVE AND POSED AN UNREASONABLE HAZARD TO INMATES.
[3.] THE TRIAL COURT AND MAGISTRATE ERRED IN FINDING DESPITE REGULAR INSPECTIONS BY DEFENDANT-APPELLEE'S EMPLOYEES, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE DID NOT HAVE CONSTRUCTIVE NOTICE OF THE HAZARD THE HANDRAIL PRESENTED TO INMATES USING THE WALKWAY ADJACENT TO THE HANDRAIL.
[4.] THE TRIAL COURT AND MAGISTRATE ERRED AS A MATTER OF LAW IN RULING PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT FAILED TO PROVE DEFENDANT-APPELLEE DID NOT HAVE ACTUAL OR CONSTRUCTIVE NOTICE OF THE DEFECTIVE HANDRAIL.
[5.] THE DECISIONS OF THE MAGISTRATE AND TRIAL COURT ARE AGAINST THE MANAIFEST WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE AND ARE CONTRARY TO LAW.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         {¶ 9} When reviewing objections to a magistrate's decision, the trial court must undertake an independent de novo review of the matters objected to in order "to determine whether the magistrate has properly determined the factual issues and appropriately applied the law." Williams v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 10th Dist. No. 18AP-720, 2019-Ohio-2194, ¶ 16, citing Civ.R. 53(D)(4)(d). "However,' "the standard of review on appeal from a trial court judgment that adopts a magistrate's decision varies with the nature of the issues that were (1) preserved for review through objections before the trial court and (2) raised on appeal by assignment of error." '" Williams at ¶ 16, quoting Starner v. Merchants Holding LLC, 10th Dist. No. 17AP-621, 2018-Ohio-1165, ¶ 15, quoting In re Guardianship of Schwarzbach, 10th Dist. No. 16AP-670, 2017-Ohio-7299, ¶ 14; Feathers v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 10th Dist. No. 16AP-588, 2017-Ohio-8179, ¶ 10; In re Adoption of N.D.D., 10th Dist. No. 18AP-561, 2019-Ohio-727, ¶ 27; Bickerstaff v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 10th Dist. No. 13AP-1028, 2014-Ohio-2364, ¶ 10.

         IV. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. Appellant's First Assignment of Error

         {¶ 10} In appellant's first assignment of error, appellant contends that the trial court erred when it found that the crumbling concrete on the stairway abutment and elsewhere around the stairway complex did not cause or contribute to the failure of the handrail. We disagree.

         {¶ 11} Appellant's claim against DRC is predicated on negligence. To prevail on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must establish the existence of a duty, a breach of the duty, and an injury resulting proximately therefrom. Skorvanek v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 10th Dist. No. 17AP-222, 2018-Ohio-3870, ¶ 27, citing Menifee v. Ohio Welding Prods., Inc., 15 Ohio St.3d 75, 77 (1984); Strother v. Hutchinson, 67 Ohio St.2d 282, 285 (1981). The plaintiff has the burden to prove each element of their negligence claim by a preponderance of the evidence. Skorvanek at ¶ 27, citing Forester v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 10th Dist. No. 11AP-366, 2011-Ohio-6296, ¶ 7.

         {¶ 12} "In the context of a custodial relationship between the state and its inmates, the state owes a common-law duty of reasonable care and protection from unreasonable risks of physical harm." McElfresh v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 10th Dist. No. 04AP-177, 2004-Ohio-5545, ΒΆ 16. "Reasonable care is that degree of caution and foresight an ordinarily prudent person would employ in similar circumstances, and includes the duty to exercise reasonable care to ...


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