Upcoming Supreme Court Arguments
The Columbus Seven heard oral arguments yesterday and today on nine cases, several of which could be significant. (I mean, if they weren't, the Supreme Court wouldn't hear them, right?) A rundown:
Howard v. Miami Township Fire Division. (Links are to court of appeals decision.) On January 24 of 2004, the Miami Township Fire Division decided to conduct a live fire drill by burning a house several times. Later that night, Christopher Howard ran off the road and crashed into a tree, killing himself, allegedly because of ice which had formed on the roadway from the runoff of the water used to put out the fires. The court of appeals had reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the fire division on sovereign immunity grounds.
There are several cases before the Court on sovereign immunity, and the Court might use them to provide some much-needed clarification of the law in this area. Or not; the issues raised by the appellants in Howard basically revolve around what constitutes an obstacle in the roadway. Like we need some clarification of that.
Kraynak v. Youngstown School District. Could be interesting: raises the issue of the child abuse reporting requirements for teachers, nurses, lawyers, doctors, and just about everybody else in the world under RC 2151.421. The trial court instructed the jury that the test for determining whether the reporter should have believed that abuse had occurred was subjective, and allowed an expert witness to testify that the reporter should determine this question from the "totality of the circumstances." Problem was that the statute doesn't say anything of the sort, so the court of appeals reversed it.
State v. Mercier. I talked last week about the Belton rule: that as part of a search incident to the arrest of an occupant of a car, the police can search the passenger compartment and any containers found in it. This case presents the Belton situation with a twist: the "container" was a purse being carried by a passenger in the car. The proposition of law the Court accepted jurisdiction on puts the issue quite squarely: "A purse being carried or worn by an automobile passenger may not be searched if the passenger is not subject to search." The search was upheld by both the trial and appellate court, and I'd be real surprised if that changed.
Burnett v. Motorists Insurance. A number of years ago, I handled a case where hubby was driving the car with wifey in it, and ran into a tree, the accident necessitating extensive work on wifey's teeth. We made a claim against the hubby's insurance, which had the minimum limits of $12,500. (Which didn't surprise me; a few years later, wifey came in and wanted me to handle a case where she fell while getting off an RTA bus at the place where she received her drug rehab treatment. Didn't take that one.) Anyway, it was the quickest and easiest four large I ever made.
Not any more, because almost all insurance families now contain an "intra-family" provision, precluding coverage for a claim by one family member against another. In fact, our state legislature gave yet another Greek salute to the insurance lobby a few years ago and amended the law just to permit that.
And that's what happened in Burnett: she was a passenger in a car being driven by her husband, and sued him when he got into an accident. The trial court found the policy provision prohibiting coverage ambiguous, and refused to enforce it. Motorists took it up to the 11th District, which said, "Hey, we don't find any ambiguity," and reversed it. The judge, being no dummy, then entered summary judgment for the insurance company. The plaintiff then took it up, and the same court of appeals -- two of the same three judges, in fact -- reversed again, this time on the grounds that the provision was unconstitutional as a violation of equal protection.
Great decision, if you're a plaintiff's lawyer, but don't go buying that beach house with the fees you expect to get if the Supremes uphold the decision, because it says here the chances of that happening are slim and none, and Slim just rode out of town.