Ohio Supreme Court to review police liability in chase

The case stems from a police-involved chase that injured Lebanon teacher.

The Ohio Supreme Court will review if police can be held liable for injuries caused to a Lebanon school teacher when Miami Twp. officers and Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputies pursued a burglary suspect in 2011.

Pamela Argabrite suffered serious injuries when her car was in a collision with a vehicle driven by 19-year-old Andrew Barnhart, who fled police and led them on a chase that reached 80 mph on Ohio 741 near Austin Boulevard.

Barnhart, who stole a television and then fled after hitting an unoccupied police car to prompt the chase, died in the July 11, 2011 crash.

Argabrite sued several officers for damages in 2012, alleging then that she’d had multiple surgeries, medical and hospital expenses of more than $630,000 and loss of past and future earnings in excess of $57,000.

“She has a lot of scars,” said Argabrite’s attorney, Kenneth Ignozzi. “She has a lot of pain that she deals with and it’s getting tougher as the years tick by.”

The Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Feb. 9 in Columbus.

Briefs supporting Argabrite have been filed by the Ohio Association for Justice and the Ohio Employment Lawyers Association. A brief supporting the officers was filed by the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Ignozzi said Ohio courts have used the wrong standard when it comes to evaluating the liability of Ohio law enforcement officers involved in suspect crashes that injure or kill bystanders.

“The appellate courts in Ohio have developed this ‘extreme and outrageous’ standard which is inconsistent with the statute. They just made it up,” Ignozzi said Monday. “I think I’m going to win on the issue when you look at the statute to prove liability, all I need is reckless (conduct), not extreme and outrageous conduct.”

Both the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court and Second District Court of Appeals agreed with law enforcement attorneys who sought to dismiss the suit because police are immune from such suits because their actions were not “extreme or outrageous.”

But even those decisions included judges’ opinions or dissents that the issue was far from settled and that the case of Whitfield v. Dayton — which set the “extreme and outrageous” standard — was not foolproof.

“This court hopes the Second District will review its previous Whitfield holding,” wrote Judge James Brogan, who decided Argabrite’s common pleas case and who dissented on part of the Whitfield case when he sat on the appellate court. “It is a license for police officers to engage in reckless conduct in pursuing fleeing suspects.”

Edward Dowd, one of the defendants’ attorneys, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. But briefs filed on behalf of the defendants said that the standard was not too high and that a lower standard would restrict officers’ attempts to arrest fleeing suspects and would have “a chilling effect” on law enforcement.

“What gives me hope is that (the court) took (the case) to begin with; they take less than 1 percent of all the cases up there,” Ignozzi said. “Why would they have taken it if I didn’t have a chance?”

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