from the Court of Claims of Ohio No. 2016-00709JD
and Swope, and Richard F Swope, for appellant.
Richard F Swope.
Yost], Attorney General, and Eric A. Walker, for appellee.
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
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.)
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.
ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR
8} Appellant assigns the following as trial court
[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
[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
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.
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, ¶ 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 ...