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Jackson v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District

November 21, 2019

Rufus Jackson, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Defendant-Appellee.

          APPEAL from the Court of Claims of Ohio (Ct. of Cl. No. 2015-00136JD)

         On brief:

          Swope and Swope and Richard F Swope, for appellant.

          Dave Yost, Attorney General, and Lee Ann Rabe, for appellee.


          Richard F. Swope.

          Lee Ann Rabe.


          NELSON, J.

         {¶ 1} Rufus Jackson, an inmate at the Marion Correctional Institution, was injured when a piece of HVAC ductwork fell from a low flatbed cart and struck him as he sat in the prison dayroom. September 7, 2018 Decision of the Magistrate at 1, 2, 4. He sued the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for negligence, and the case was tried to a Court of Claims magistrate on the issue of liability. The magistrate found that he failed to prove that the department had breached any duty of care to him; she recommended judgment for the defendant department. Id. at 9. After Mr. Jackson lodged certain objections to that recommendation, the trial judge conducted an independent assessment of those matters, reviewing the implicated facts and conclusions afresh. February 4, 2019 Judgment Entry at 2. Finding that the magistrate had properly determined the facts and applied the law, the trial court adopted the magistrate's decision and entered judgment for the department. Id. at 7. Mr. Jackson now appeals.

         {¶ 2} Mr. Jackson's appeal is rooted in his view that "there was a high degree of probability an accident would occur," Appellant's Brief at 11, and that in light of that fact, the department breached" 'a common-law duty of reasonable care and protection'" to guard him against" 'unreasonable risks, '" id. at 14 ("Conclusion," citing McCoy v. Engle, 42 Ohio App.3d 204 (10th Dist.1987)). But Mr. Jackson did not prove at trial that the department knew or should have known about the risk of such an accident (let alone that the accident was probable to a "high degree" or otherwise, or that a known risk was "unreasonable"). And although the magistrate found that Mr. Jackson had failed to establish that the department had "notice" of the risk, he "did not object to this aspect of the magistrate's decision" and the trial court properly found that "the evidence supports the magistrate's finding." Magistrate's Decision at 9; Judgment Entry at 7; compare October 25, 2018 Objections at 1 (not contesting that finding by the magistrate). So Mr. Jackson's appeal never really gets off the ground.

         {¶ 3} The facts to the extent they can be ascertained from the testimony at trial are reasonably straightforward. It is not contested that an enterprise called The K Company had been doing HVAC work at the prison for roughly one to two weeks at the time of the accident. Magistrate's Decision at 1, 2, 5. K Company employee Donald Heberlein testified that prison inmates would load ductwork onto flatbed carts that his fellow K Company employee Steve Fox testified were only about five to eight inches off the ground. Id. at 3, 2; Heberlein Depo. at 5; Tr. at 31. Each piece of ductwork was 56.5 inches high, measured 8 to 10 inches across, and weighed approximately 10 to 20 pounds, Mr. Fox said; they were loaded onto the carts vertically and were considered stable because they had a 1.75 inch flange at each end. Magistrate's Decision at 2; March 13, 2018 Liability Trial Tr. at 14, 26, 27, 20 (Fox testimony that "it's a pretty good way of hauling TDC * * *. It doesn't move").

         {¶ 4} As the magistrate summarized, "Heberlein testified [through deposition] that the material did not need to be secured on a cart because it was square, flat material that typically rode on a cart very well. Heberlein stated that loading the ductwork on carts did not require instruction because the material was 'just metal squares' that would ride on a cart. When asked why the material was not secured on the cart, he stated that, 'Never in my life of 25 years of installing ductwork have we ever secured any material to a cart, not once in my career.'" Magistrate's Decision at 3. As the trial court added, Mr. Heberlein "further testified that he's 'never' had ductwork fall during transport and hit anyone." Judgment Entry at 3; Heberlein Depo. at 20.

         {¶ 5} "Heberlein described the floor of the dayroom as being smooth concrete and stated that he did not see any defects in the floor on the day of the accident." Magistrate's Decision at 3-4; Heberlein Depo. at 13. On somewhat mixed testimony that is not challenged here, the magistrate found that "an inmate worker was moving the cart through the dayroom" when the ductwork fell. Id. at 8. That piece of falling ductwork hit the seated Mr. Jackson on his head, shoulders, and back, causing him injury. Id. at 1; Trial Tr. at 43 (Jackson testimony).

         {¶ 6} The prison guard who served as an escort to K Company employees and who viewed his role as keeping the contractors safe in that environment "testified that he was behind the cart when the ductwork fell, that the incident occurred suddenly without warning, and that prior to plaintiffs incident, he had not witnessed any HVAC equipment fall from a cart." Magistrate's Decision at 4; ...

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