You've Got Mail! Ohio Supreme Court Clarifies Landowner's Duty to Motorists.

By:Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Program Coordinator, OSU Income Tax Schools & ANR Extension Thursday, December 09th, 2021
Mailbox on side of the road covered in snow.

In Ohio, we are no strangers to the dreaded “black ice.”  You probably know someone that has fallen victim to this invisible nuisance.  We see it time and time again.  Someone hits a patch of black ice and inevitably swerves off the road. Sometimes, a motorist may hit a mailbox, a tree, or a telephone pole and suffer serious injury.  A common question that arises after such an incident is whether the owner or the party responsible for that tree or pole can be held liable for the motorist’s injuries.  After all, had they removed the off-road object the motorist may have just slid into a ditch without any serious injury, right?  

Well, in a recent decision, the Ohio Supreme Court clarified the duty owed to motorists by landowners or occupiers of land adjacent to a public roadway with respect to off-road objects.  The case arises after a motorist hit a patch of black ice causing him to veer off the road and hit a mailbox, which then caused his truck to roll.  The central issue of the case revolved around the landowner’s potential liability for the mailbox being within the right-of-way and causing the motorist’s truck to flip.  Below we review the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Snay v. Burr and the duty owed to motorists by landowners or occupiers of land.  

Background.  On December 19, 2016, Cletus Snay was driving from his home in Norwalk, Ohio to his place of work in Bellevue, Ohio.  Mr. Snay was traveling along a two-lane country road when he hit a patch of black ice that caused him to veer off the road.  Ohio Highway Patrol found Mr. Snay’s truck rolled over.  The state trooper had concluded that Mr. Snay’s truck went off the right side of the road, struck the first mailbox, owned by Matthew and Diane Burr, and began to flip, hitting the second mailbox and eventually ending up overturned further down the road.  As a result of the accident, Mr. Snay suffered damage to his spine, rendering him quadriplegic.  

After the accident, it was discovered that the Burrs’ mailbox post remained in the ground, while the second mailbox post that Mr. Snay’s truck hit was destroyed.  Mr. Burr installed his mailbox approximately 20 years before Mr. Snay’s accident.  Before installing the mailbox, Mr. Burr obtained guidelines for mailbox installation published by the United States Postal Service.  The guidelines recommended, but did not require, that a metal mailbox support be two-inch-diameter standard-steel or aluminum pipe and be buried no more than 24 inches deep.  Mr. Burr, however, used an eight-inch-diameter metal pipe that he buried 36 inches deep. 

Mr. Snay and his wife hired an accident reconstructionist that agreed with the state trooper that Mr. Snay’s truck began to roll over after hitting the Burrs’ mailbox.  However, the accident reconstructionist was of the opinion that the Burrs’ unyielding mailbox post was the mechanism that caused Mr. Snay’s truck to overturn.  The accident reconstructionist characterized the Burrs’ mailbox support as a “dangerous hazard to motorists.”  

The Snays filed suit alleging that the Burrs were negligent in constructing their mailbox because “it was supported by a thick, non-breakaway metal pipe.”  The Burrs moved for summary judgment, arguing that they owed no duty of care to Mr. Snay and that Mr. Snay’s failure to control his vehicle was the cause of Mr. Snay’s injuries, not the mailbox.  Both the trial court and the appellate court agreed with the Burrs.  The Snays then brought the case before the Ohio Supreme Court. 

What is the duty that a landowner owes to motorists traveling on a roadway with respect to off-road objects and obstructions? The Snays asked the Ohio Supreme Court to hold the Burrs liable for breaching the duty of care owed to motorists traveling on the road adjacent to their property.  The Snays argued that the Burrs negligently misused the right-of-way by creating an unreasonable hazard that a motorist might encounter when they veer off the road.  The Court disagreed. 

The Court went through a historical analysis of Ohio’s law as it relates to off-road objects and the duty owed to motorists by landowners or occupiers.  The Court found that under Ohio law “the effect that an object or obstruction in a right-of-way has on the ordinary use of the roadway” controls when determining the existence of a duty owed to motorists.  The Court reasoned that if any duty is owed to a motorist by a landowner, it is the duty to ensure that any off-road hazard does not make “the roadway unsafe for the usual and ordinary course of travel.” Examples of off-road objects that may make the roadway unsafe for the usual course of travel include corn growing in the right-of-way that obstructs a motorist’s view of cross traffic or a large sign that obstructs a motorist’s view of the road.  

The Court also found that there is no precedent to impose a duty on a landowner to remove an off-road hazard that makes only off-road travel unsafe, unless the off-road travel is shown to be an aspect of the ordinary and usual course of travel on that particular roadway.  Here the Court held that the Burrs’ mailbox did not make ordinary travel on the road adjacent to the Burrs’ property unsafe.  The Court found that the motorists traveling on the roadway usually drove on the paved area of the road.  The Court recognized that motorists are not free to drive on a right-of-way as they please and found that the Burrs’ mailbox only presented a hazard to a motorist once the motorist errantly left the road.  

So, if a landowner has an off-road object in the right-of-way, the Ohio Supreme Court has now ruled that the landowner’s duty is to ensure that the off-road object does not make the ordinary or usual travel of the roadway unsafe for motorists, otherwise all fixed objects like mailboxes or trees could impose liability on a landowner.   

Do landowners owe a duty of care to motorists that leave the roadway?  The Snays also argued that the Burrs’ “unreasonably dangerous construction” of the mailbox and deviation from the nonbinding guidelines of the United States Postal Service, gave rise to a duty of care to motorists that might leave the road and hit the mailbox.  Again, the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed.  

The Court again reiterated the fact that in order for a landowner or occupier to be liable there must first “be a condition or obstruction that jeopardizes the safety of traffic on the ordinarily traveled portion of the road.”  The Court reasoned that the right-of-way beyond the paved portion of the road adjacent to the Burrs’ property was not used for ordinary travel.  Therefore, the Court stated that a “vehicle traveling ordinarily and with due care on the road would not come in contact with the Burrs’ mailbox.”  The Court also reasoned that adjacent landowners are entitled to presume that motorists will observe the law and exercise ordinary care while driving on a roadway and that a motorist hitting a patch of black ice is neither normal or expected.

The Court concluded that Mr. Burr’s construction of the mailbox, even though inconsistent with the United States Postal Service guidelines, “does not warrant a departure from the general rule that the duty to motorists owed by an adjacent landowner or an occupier of land adjacent to the road extends only to conditions in the right-of-way that render ordinary travel on the regularly traveled portion of the road unsafe.”  Therefore, a landowner owes no duty to a motorist that errantly veers off the road and hits an off-road hazard.  

Conclusion.  As a landowner, or an occupier of land adjacent to a public roadway, it is your duty to ensure that any off-road object or obstruction does not make the ordinary and usual travel of the roadway unsafe.  Only then can a landowner, or occupier of land, be liable for injuries caused by an off-road object or obstruction.  Ohio does not impose a duty on landowners or occupiers of land to keep a right-of-way free of objects that may pose a danger to wayward vehicles. To read the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision, visit the Ohio Supreme Court’s website