Oral Argument Preview: Sovereign Immunity and Employer Intentional Torts. Vacha v. North Ridgeville.

Update: On July 17, 2013 the Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the oral argument here.

On February 26, 2013, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of Vacha v. North Ridgeville, 2011-1050. The issue in this case is whether R.C. 2744.09(B) creates an exception to political subdivision immunity for intentional tort claims alleged by a public employee.

Case Background

In June 2006, Lisa Vacha was raped by a co-worker at a wastewater treatment plant owned and operated by the city of North Ridgeville. She applied for and was granted workers’ compensation permanent total disability benefits as a result of the attack. Vacha then sued the city, alleging it was liable for her injuries on theories of vicarious liability, negligent and reckless hiring and supervision, and for an employer intentional tort (for employing the rapist). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the city on Vacha’s vicarious liability claims, but denied the motion on the remaining claims, rejecting the city’s immunity defenses. Only the intentional tort claim is at issue in this appeal.

Court of Appeals Decision

In a split decision on this issue, the Ninth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision that North Ridgeville was not immune from Vacha’s intentional tort claim. Under the Ninth District’s decision in Buck v. Reminderville, 2010-Ohio-6497, a claim by an employee against a political subdivision employer for its intentionally tortious conduct “may constitute a civil action relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision” under R.C. 2744.09(B).  The dissenting judge would find that political subdivisions are immune from employer intentional tort claims.

Key Statute

R.C. 2744.09(B) provides that Chapter 2744 (political subdivision tort immunity) “does not apply to, and shall not be construed to apply to, the following *** (B) Civil actions by an employee, or the collective bargaining representative of an employee, against his political subdivision relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision.”

Key Precedent

In Sampson v. Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, the Supreme Court issued the following holdings:

1.  When an employee of a political subdivision brings a civil action against the political subdivision alleging an intentional tort, that civil action may qualify as a “matter that arises out of the employment relationship” within the meaning of R.C. 2744.09(B).

2.  An employee’s action against his or her political-subdivision employer arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision within the meaning of R.C. 2744.09(B) if there is a causal connection or a causal relationship  between the claims raised by the employee and the employment relationship.

Vacha v. North Ridgewood was originally accepted and held for decision in the Sampson case. The Court is now allowing this case to proceed to resolution. Read the analysis of the merit decision in Sampson here.

North Ridgeville’s Argument

North Ridgeville argues that an intentional tort does not arise out of the employment relationship, and that R.C. 2744.09 does not create an exception to immunity for intentional torts. It argues that the Ninth District’s decision is in conflict with every other district that has held that political subdivisions are immune from liability for intentional torts committed by their employees. Furthermore, it argues that the exemption from immunity in R.C. 2744.09 does not apply here because the rape was “not relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship” between Vacha and the city, and the employee’s rape of Vacha was not “calculated to facilitate or promote the business” of the city as required by Sampson v. Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Vacha’s Argument

Vacha argues that this case is not about the city’s vicarious liability for the rape, nor about proof that the city acted intentionally. Rather, Vacha argues that this case is directly controlled by and can be summarily affirmed by Sampson v. CMHA, holding that “when an employee of a political subdivision brings a civil action against the political subdivision alleging an intentional tort, that civil action may qualify as a ‘matter that arises out of the employment relationship’ within the meaning of R.C. 2744.09(B).” Thus, because the tortious conduct alleged in the complaint (i.e., that the city was intentionally reckless in hiring, then failing to supervise or control, a man with seven prior convictions for crimes of violence) had a causal connection to the employment relationship (because the employee and Vacha were hired by the city, were required to work together by the city, and were both employees of the city), the holding in Sampson applies and makes immunity unavailable.

North Ridgeville’s proposed proposition of law

  1. R.C. 2744.090(B) does not create an exception to political subdivision  immunity for intentional tort claims alleged by a public employee.

Student Contributor: Greg Kendall

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