If a county-owned road collapses and your home floods, who's liable? Court to decide (2024)

Bryce Buyakie, Akron Beacon Journal

·4 min read

Ohio's highest court could soon decide if Summit County government can be held liable after a public road collapsed, causing a nearby home to flood multiple times.

A Sagamore Hills homeowner sued Summit County six years ago, alleging the county failed to properly maintain a public road that collapsed after forming a sinkhole. The debris blocked a culvert, which backed water onto her property causing roughly $70,000 in damages, according to court documents.

She argued the county should be held liable for the damage because the water damage was caused by a poorly maintained road. The county argued it is immune from liability as it is only responsible for damages caused on the road.

This case comes after the Summit County Court of Common Pleas and the Ninth District Court of Appeals sided with the county's argument for immunity.

The Ohio Supreme Court will hear arguments starting Wednesday, and could uphold the lower courts' decisions or overrule them.

Attorney Matthew Romano, who represents the homeowner, and a Summit County spokesperson could not be immediately contacted by phone or email for comment.

How a sinkhole led to years of litigation

The homeowner said she experienced no flooding for about 30 years until 2017, when her home flooded three times.

Near her home, there are two culverts, including one that runs under the road, and a drainage ditch that diverts water away from her property and other nearby homes. In 2016, Summit County inspected the culverts and found them rusted with large holes and deteriorating catch basins, according to court documents.

On May 16, 2017, the county approved a contract to replace the culverts — but sometime before May 21, a sinkhole formed that collapsed the road and obstructed one culvert.

The homeowner reported that her basem*nt flooded on May 21 and 25 when water backed up onto her property. The county cleared the obstruction, but according to court documents, her basem*nt flooded again on May 28.

The culverts were replaced and repaired nearly two months later.

She argued the county is liable for damages that occur on nearby properties as a result of deteriorating roadways. She also claimed if the county had maintained the road before, during and after the sinkhole appeared, no flooding would have occurred.

Is Summit County immune from litigation?

Since the civil lawsuit's opening salvos in 2018, the homeowner argued that Summit County is liable for the damage caused to her home. The county, meanwhile, has maintained that it does not bear that responsibility.

In multiple court documents, Summit County said the road was not in disrepair and it collapsed because of the rusting culvert below the road. It further argued the culvert is not part of the travel surface and therefore is not part of the road itself.

The county also referred to other appellate court decisions that found local governments are not immune if there is a traffic injury or death as a result of government negligence, according to court documents.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands found the homeowner was not using the road and was not injured by a road condition. Rowlands said the county was not responsible for damage to the property.

An appeals court upheld the trial court's decision, with Ninth District Court of Appeals Judge Donna Carr writing the county is responsible for maintaining the safety of its roads but not the safety of nearby properties.

Previous arguments struck down in appeals

Three of the homeowner's other claims found initial success in Summit County Common Pleas Court in the early stages of the case, but were struck down in appeal.

The trial court ruled in favor of the first claim, which alleged Summit County should be held liable because the culverts and ditch were part of a larger sewer system.

Attorneys representing Summit County successfully appealed that decision when Ninth District Court of Appeals Judge Lynne Callahan found the homeowner did not prove that the ditch and culverts were part of a larger sewer system. Without that proof, the county could not be held liable for damages.

Because the appellate court reversed the first claim, Callahan wrote, the two other claims were rendered moot.

The homeowner appealed the matter to the Ohio Supreme Court, which declined to hear it in 2022.

Bryce Buyakie covers courts and public safety for the Beacon Journal. He can be reached by email at bbuyakie@gannett.com or on X, formerly known as Twitter, @bryce_buyakie.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Ohio Supreme Court to decide if county is liable for flooding

If a county-owned road collapses and your home floods, who's liable? Court to decide (2024)

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