April 3, 2013
Injury at the Natatorium

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Among the many universal truths – such as gravity, the speed of light, and always turning on the TV in the middle of a commercial – there’s this one: kids love swimming pools. Unfortunately, it’s also inevitable that if you have enough kids at enough swimming pools, one of them is bound to get hurt.

And so it was for a youngster we’ll refer to as M.H., who suffered a broken knee while swimming at an indoor pool maintained by the city of Cuyahoga Falls. After M.H. broke his knee, he and his parents filed a legal action in which they alleged that his injury had occurred because of negligence on the part of Cuyahoga Falls.

In response, Cuyahoga Falls offered a number of defenses, including the city’s claim that it was immune from liability because of a state law that provides immunity to political subdivisions in certain circumstances. Cuyahoga Falls filed a motion for summary judgment – which means the city asked the court to rule on the complaint without a trial.

The trial court granted summary judgment, but the court of appeals reversed that ruling. After that, the case came before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio – for a final review.

The law in question – we’ll call it the “political-subdivision immunity” law – generally confers immunity from liability for injury caused by a political subdivision’s acts and omissions “in connection with a governmental or proprietary function.”

What does all that mean? A “political subdivision” simply refers to a city or a township or a village. “Immunity” means that the city can’t be sued for performing duties associated with the functioning of the city.

A subsection of the law states that the design, maintenance, and operation of a municipal swimming pool are governmental functions. So that part of the law is pretty straightforward – a political subdivision is considered to be engaging in a governmental function when it is maintaining and operating a municipal swimming pool.

But the law also has a subsection that carves out certain exceptions to immunity. This subsection – we’ll call it the “immunity-exception clause” – states that “political subdivisions are liable for injury ... that is caused by the negligence of their employees and that occurs within or on the grounds of, and is due to physical defects within or on the grounds of, buildings that are used in connection with the performance of a governmental function.”

When the trial court granted Cuyahoga Falls’ motion for summary judgment, it did so based on the ground that indoor swimming pools do not fall under the immunity-exception clause of the political-subdivision immunity law.

And when the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling, it did so because it concluded that the pool was actually in “a building used in connection with the performance of a governmental function,” and therefore the immunity-exception clause was applicable in this instance.

We began our review of this case with the basics: Cuyahoga Falls is a political subdivision, and therefore it is able to assert immunity. And there’s no doubt that by maintaining and operating that indoor pool, Cuyahoga Falls was performing a governmental function. Thus, Cuyahoga Falls would be immune from liability unless an exception to immunity applies.

As we saw it, this case fit clearly within the immunity-exception clause. The complaint alleged that the city was negligent in the care or control of its pool or diving board and that the negligence caused the injury that M.H. suffered. The pool is within a building that is “used in connection with the performance of a governmental function.”

The only impediment that we saw to a resolution based solely on the plain language of the political-subdivision immunity law was a decision that our court issued in a case in 1998 that was somewhat similar to this one.

In that 1998 case, a 12-year-old boy died from complications after nearly drowning in a municipal pool. We concluded that “the operation of a municipal pool, although defined as a governmental function” by the political-subdivision immunity law, is subject to the exceptions to immunity set forth in the immunity-exception clause.

In reaching that conclusion our court said, “Unlike a courthouse or office building where government business is conducted, a city recreation center houses recreational activities.” That 1998 opinion expressed concern that imposing liability on a political subdivision for injuries at an indoor swimming pool created an artificial distinction between indoor pools and outdoor pools, for which there would be no liability, because the injury had not occurred in a building.

But in M.H.’s case, we were not persuaded that the language from that 1998 case had ongoing relevance. Instead, we concluded that the plain language of the political-subdivision immunity law was sufficient to guide us in reaching a decision.

It is clear that the operation of a pool is a government function. In M.H.’s case, it was equally clear that the injury “occurred within or on the grounds” of a building that was used in connection with the performance of a governmental function. Accordingly, we concluded that the immunity-exception clause applied in this instance.

At the trial court, Cuyahoga Falls was granted summary judgment. Was that the proper ruling?

Summary judgment may be granted when one of three conditions apply. One of those conditions states that summary judgment may be granted when the party that files the motion for summary judgment is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Based on our conclusion that the immunity-exception clause is applicable in M.H.’s case, we determined that Cuyahoga Falls is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the motion for summary judgment.

Therefore, by a seven-to-zero vote, we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals – which had reversed the trial court – and sent this case back to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is M.H. v. Cuyahoga Falls, 134 Ohio St.3d 65, 2012-Ohio-5336. Case No. 2011-1588. Decided November 20, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.