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County Board of Commissioners Not Statutorily Immune from Liability for Negligent Maintenance and Repair of Sewer System

In Rice v. Columbiana Cty. Bd. Commrs., 2022-Ohio-2078, the Appellate Court held that the Columbiana County Board of Commissioners (“County”) was not entitled to statutory immunity under R.C. Chapter 2744 for the negligent maintenance and repair of a sewage backup in the sewer system line that resulted in damage to the homeowners’ homes, but also did not negligently misrepresent to the homeowners that it would pay for the damage repairs.

Here, the homeowners first argued that the County was negligent in maintaining the sewer system line when a new manhole cover was installed, and the sewer line was jetted which subsequently caused several feet of water to backup into one of their basements. The County raised the affirmative defense of political subdivision immunity under R.C. Chapter 2744. The homeowners countered that the County was not entitled to immunity because it was performing a proprietary function, and political subdivisions are liable for negligent acts by their employees with respect to proprietary functions. The court agreed with the homeowners.

In support of its decision, the court reasoned that it was undisputed that the County was a political subdivision entitled to the presumption of immunity under R.C. Chapter 2744. The court then explained that the County, by overseeing and performing sewer-line maintenance, was involved in the maintenance, operation, and upkeep of the sewer system rather than the planning, design, construction, or reconstruction of the sewer system, and thus the county was performing a proprietary rather than governmental function as defined under the statute.

The homeowners then argued that the County negligently misrepresented that it would pay for the water damage to their homes, and they relied on those promises when they arranged for the repairs to be made to their homes after the damage. The court disagreed with the homeowners.

In support of its decision, the court explained that the elements necessary for a promissory estoppel claim are “(1) a clear and unambiguous promise; (2) reasonable and foreseeable reliance by the party to whom the promise is made; and (3) injury by the reliance by the party claiming estoppel.” The court found that the homeowners could not meet the reliance element of their claim because the evidence showed that they would have arranged for the repairs to be made for their homes regardless of whether the County was going to pay or not.

To read this case, click here.

Authors: Matthew John Markling and the McGown & Markling Team.

Note: This blog entry does not constitute – nor does it contain – legal advice. Legal jurisprudence is like the always-changing Midwestern weather. As a result, this single blog entry cannot substitute for consultation with a McGown & Markling attorney. If legal advice is needed with respect to a specific factual situation, please feel free to contact a McGown & Markling attorney.

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