It is well-established that Ohio municipalities, as political subdivisions, are not civilly liable for injury caused by municipal employees in connection with governmental or proprietary functions. See R.C. 2744.02(A)(1). Providing emergency medical services is a governmental function. See R.C. 2744.01(C)(2)(a). However, in a recent decision that highlights the limits of sovereign immunity for the conduct of emergency medical personnel, the Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled that R.C. 4765.49(B) unequivocally imposes liability on a municipality for damages caused by emergency medical personnel who provide services in a willful or wanton manner.

In Riffle v. Physicians & Surgeons Ambulance Serv., Inc., Akron Fire Department EMS responded to a call that Andrea Riffle, then in her third trimester of pregnancy, was experiencing serious vaginal bleeding. Responding paramedics and EMTs took Riffle’s vital signs but did not assess the unborn child or transport Riffle to the hospital. Rather, they contacted a private ambulance service, which eventually transported Riffle to Akron City Hospital. There, doctors diagnosed the unborn child with fetal bradycardia, an abnormally slow heartbeat, and performed an emergency cesarean section. After the child’s birth, doctors determined that a placental abruption precipitated the fetal bradycardia. The baby died three days later.

Plaintiffs sued, among others, the city of Akron and several of its emergency medical personnel alleging that each had negligently, recklessly, and wantonly caused the death of their child. Akron moved for judgment on the pleadings claiming sovereign immunity under 2744. The trial court denied Akron’s motion, finding that 4765.49(B) provides an immunity exception when emergency medical services are provided in a willful or wanton manner.

On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s denial of dismissal, but on different grounds. The court of appeals determined that the two statutes are in conflict since each afford immunity to political subdivisions for emergency medical services, but only section 4765.49(B) contains an exception to that immunity. Under rules of general statutory construction, the court of appeals applied the more specific statute of section 4765(B) to the facts of Plaintiffs’ case and thus held that Akron was not immune from liability for the alleged willful or wanton conduct of its medical emergency medical personnel.

The city of Akron appealed once again, now to the Ohio Supreme Court. The Supreme Court again affirmed the finding of the court below, imposing liability on the city, but on reasoning different both from the trial court and the court of appeals. The Supreme Court found no conflict between the two statutes (2744.02 and 4765.49). Rather, the court held that the foundational statutory frame work of 2744.02 grants general immunity to political subdivisions, except when liability is expressly imposed by another statute. It found “that the legislature intended RC 4765.49(B) to expressly impose liability on political subdivisions by providing an exception to immunity when emergency medical services are provided in a willful or wanton manner.”

Accordingly, one practical effect of this decision is that municipalities and other political subdivisions can expect allegations by plaintiffs and their attorneys of willful and wanton conduct by governmental emergency medical personnel when asserting a claim so as to thwart the efforts of the governmental entities to obtain dismissal under the general immunity statute.

If you have any questions concerning this decision or would like a copy of the full case, or have any other issue regarding governmental or public entity liability, please contact any member of our Governmental/Public Entity Liability Practice Group.

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