By Dan Trevas
Court News Ohio

The Ohio Supreme Court will consider whether a driver who was paralyzed after hitting a fortified mailbox can recover damages from the landowner.

Frustrated by teenage vandals cracking the wooden post of his mailbox, Matthew Burr built a new mailbox using an 8-inch diameter steel pipe he obtained from the scrap yard where he worked and buried the pipe three feet into the ground. He poured a mix of stones and cement into the post’s hole to further thwart the attempts of would-be pranksters.

On a cold day in December 2016, Cletus Snay was driving to work past Burr’s rural Huron County home when he hit a patch of black ice, slid off the road, and clipped Burr’s and Burr’s neighbor’s mailboxes. Snay’s truck flattened the neighbor’s mailbox as the truck veered off the road. But Burr’s mailbox withstood the impact, and caused Snay’s truck to flip. Snay fractured his spine in three places and was paralyzed from the neck down.

Snay sued Burr and his wife, maintaining that if Burr had followed federal postal service recommendations for rural mailboxes, his truck would have safely slid off the road into an open yard after knocking over the mailbox.

Next week, the Ohio Supreme Court will consider whether landowners, such as Burr, are responsible for accidents that occur off the side of the road when a vehicle hits an object they own.

At the center of the legal dispute between Snay and Burr is the duty of care owed by private landowners to travelers “on the highway.” Burr’s home is on Young Road in Bellevue. The paved road itself is about 20 feet wide, with two 20-feet wide unpaved “rights-of-way” on both sides of the road.

Burr’s mailbox is located within the right-of-way, about 21 inches from the edge of the paved road, which is consistent with postal service guidelines. The lower courts sided with Burr, citing the general rule that Ohio law imposes no duty on property owners to motorists who lose control of their vehicles, leave the traveled portion of the roadway, and strike an off-the-road object within the right-of-way.

Snay asserts there is an exception to the general rule — a landowner has no duty to remove an off-the-road hazard that doesn’t affect travel on the highway “unless the landowner had actual or constructive knowledge of the danger posed to travelers on the highway.” Snay maintains the lower courts placed too much emphasis on the mailbox being legally located in the right-of-way. He maintains the key issue is the unreasonable construction of the mailbox, which made it a known danger to travelers.

In 1995, the railroad tie that served as the post for Burr’s mailbox sustained its last hit from vandals and had fallen over. Burr went to the Bellevue Post Office, which provided a written sheet of federal guidelines for rural mailboxes. At a deposition, Burr recalled that the guidelines suggested the use of a wooden post no more than 4-inches by 4-inches or a standard steel or aluminum pipe of 2 inches in diameter buried no more than 24 inches into the ground. Burr stated he understood the recommended mailbox supports would be stable but bend or fall away if hit by a car.

Burr used an 8-inch diameter hollow metal pole and buried it 36 inches into the ground. He poured rocks into the hole and dry cement left over from a home improvement.

Not long after the installation, a township official who plowed the snow on Young Road told Burr that he was concerned about the mailbox and thought it was illegal because it could damage the snowplow. Burr testified that he thought the mailbox would give way if hit by the snowplow. Burr also acknowledged he was aware of vehicles occasionally clipping his mailbox because it was close to the road, and had experienced vehicles sliding off the road and onto his property in the past.

Snay explains that most cases concerning motorist accidents with obstructions in rights-of-way deal with utility poles, where there is no duty owed to motorists if the utility had government approval to place the poles in the right-of-way, or with obstructions that are the responsibility of local governments. The few cases dealing with private landowner responsibilities involved obstructions that existed on the land, such as a tree that had grown too close to the road or rubble from a demolished building, and claims that the landowner should have removed them from the right-of-way, he notes. Unlike the other cases, Burr placed an object in the right-of-way and knew it was dangerous, making him liable for the accident, Snay maintains.

Burr notes this case is no different than the others, citing the exception noted by Snay. That exception applies to “danger posed to travelers on the highway.” Snay wasn’t on the road when he hit the mailbox. He was off the road because he hit a patch of black ice that the landowner had no responsibility to remove, he maintains. Burr argues the Supreme Court has struck a reasonable balance that imposes liability on landowners if they obstruct travel on the highway but provides no duty when their off-the-road objects don’t interfere with ordinary travel.

The Court will hear oral arguments in Snay v. Burr and six other cases during a two-day session on June 15 and 16.