On May 6, 2008, 72-year-old Ronald Anderson and his four year old grandson Javarre Tate were killed when Anderson’s minivan was struck broadside at an intersection by a fire engine on an emergency run in response to an automobile fire in Massillon. The fire engine, driven by Susan Toles and commanded by Rick Annen, approached the intersection where the accident occurred with horn and siren blaring, significantly in excess of the speed limit. Further details of how the accident occurred are in the various opinions in the case.
The trial court originally granted summary judgment both to the city of Massillon and to the firefighters on the basis of political subdivision immunity. The Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed, finding that reasonable minds could differ about whether Toles and Annen were reckless, and thus not entitled to immunity. The appeals court also held that the willful or wanton misconduct standard codified at R.C. 2744.02(B)(1)(b) is the functional equivalent of recklessness set forth in R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b), and thus also reversed summary judgment for the city. The city and the firefighters appealed to the Supreme Court.
In Anderson v. Massillon, 2012-Ohio-5711, the Supreme Court of Ohio gave specific, individual definitions to the terms “willful” “wanton” and “reckless” in the case syllabus, finding that the three described different degrees of care and were not interchangeable. The case was sent back to re-evaluate the conduct of the firefighters in light of the new definitions.
What Happened On Remand
On remand, the trial court granted summary judgment to the city, but denied summary judgment to firefighters Toles and Annen. The trial court found that there was no evidence of willful or wanton misconduct by the firefighters, thus entitling the city to the full defense to liability under R.C. 2744.02(B)(1)(b). But the court found that based on the evidence presented, there were genuine issues of material fact about whether Toles and Annen were reckless, as the term had now been defined by the Supreme Court.
Both sides appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeals. On June 9, 2014, the Fifth District Court of Appeals unanimously found that there were genuine issues of material fact on whether the conduct of the firefighters was wanton, as well as reckless, as re-defined in the Supreme Court decision, thus affirming the denial of summary judgment to the firefighters and reversing summary judgment to the city. The city tried appealing again to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which, on December 3, 2014, declined to hear the case a second time.
The case was finally set to go to trial on February 22, 2016. On February 19, 2016 the parties reached a settlement in the gross amount of $362,500, of which $350,000 came from the Public Entitles Pool of Ohio on behalf of the city of Massillon and the two firefighters, and $12,500 came from Cynthia and Ronald Anderson’s automobile liability insurance policy. After the deduction for attorney fees and costs advanced, the Estates of Ronald Anderson and Javarre Tate will each receive 75, 313.74. The settlement was approved by Stark County Common Pleas Judge Dixie Park on May 26, 2016.
The administrator’s application in support of the settlement of these cases raised some very interesting legal issues in support of the settlement. Here are a few.
- The trial court ruled that Ronald Anderson’s comparative negligence in failing to yield to and pulling in front of an approaching fire truck with sirens and lights activated could be asserted against firefighter conduct of a higher degree of culpability (reckless or wanton conduct).
- Jurors tend to be very sympathetic to firefighters on emergency runs, and verdicts against them are very rare.
- Damages in the case would likely be limited. The only economic damages were funeral and burial expenses, as the parties who died were 72 and 4 years old. They both died instantly so there were no survivorship damages or medical expenses.
- More than seven years had passed between the time of the accident and trial, and further appeals could be anticipated.
The administrator also cited the $350,000 settlement in the similar case of Burlingame v. Estate of Burlingame, argued the day before the Anderson case. Read about Burlingame here.