The Ohio Supreme Court in a split decision has ruled that a utility company will not be liable for injuries stemming from a motorcycle accident in which the rider was struck by a deer before being tossed into a utility pole close to the road.
The issue was not so much the presence of the utility pole a where it was located.
In the case of Link v. FirstEnergy Corp., plaintiffs alleged the utility company and its parent corporation should be liable for the motorcyclist’s injuries because the poles were not moved back to a position farther from the road during a previous road-widening project. This failure to move the poles – even at the request of the township that contracted the work – amounted to negligence because the “Clear Zone” roadway design standards set by the Federal Highway Administration weren’t followed, plaintiff alleged.
This “clear zone” standard holds that there should be a minimum clear zone on either side of the road, which will vary with the slopes and horizontal curves of each roadway. Examples of possible roadside elements that might need to be set farther back include:
- Mature trees
- Signal supports
- Landscaping items
- Primary power poles
However, these standards aren’t laws. They are guidelines. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled the power company did have some discretion, and there was no concrete obligation to remove the poles to a position farther because because they weren’t directly impeding roadway operations.
According to court records, the township board of trustees where the motorcycle accident happened approved in 2006 a plan to authorize the county engineer to begin the process of road-widening. Defendant contractor won the contract for the work, with the stipulation that the utility company would move back some 37 power poles.
However, after the work started, the utility company informed the township it would not be moving back eight of the power poles. The city engineer asked them to reconsider, pointing out the utility company likely didn’t want to assume liability for that. The power company declined to take action. Later, the township trustees asked the power company to move the eight poles back, but the power company responded it would only move the poles if the township paid for it. After consulting with the township attorney, officials decided to give the green light to open the road for public use.
The motorcycle accident in question happened six months later. According to court records, plaintiff was driving his motorcycle on that road – his wife a short distance behind him in a car – when a deer struck him on the left side. There is dispute about whether he was knocked off his bike and hit the pole or if he was still on the bike when he struck the pole. In either case, he sustained serious, long-term injuries.
Plaintiffs sued the construction company, the utility company and the parent utility company.
The utility companies argued they could not be liable when they had permission to install the poles and the poles didn’t interfere with the ordinary and usual course of travel.
Trial court denied this and jurors decided the case in favor of the plaintiffs. However upon appeal, a split Ohio Supreme Court reversed on the denial of summary judgment. By state statute, because the poles didn’t interfere with the ordinary course of travel and the companies had permission to install them where they were, they could not be liable for injuries.
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Link v. FirstEnergy Corp., July 26, 2016, Ohio Supreme Court
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Etherton v. Owners Insurance – $2.25M for Auto Insurer Breach of Contract, July 29, 2016, Orlando Motorcycle Accident Lawyer Blog