State can be liable in fireworks deaths

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 5, 2002

The Associated PRess

COLUMBUS -- A ruling that says the state can be held liable for the 1996 deaths of nine people at a fireworks store shows the Ohio Supreme Court is slowly dismantling the state's legal protections, the Ohio attorney general said.

The court ruled 4-3 Wednesday that the state fire marshal is not protected as a government entity from negligence lawsuits. The same legal principles apply whether a defendant is private or public, an individual or institution, the court said.

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''What it will do is open us up to litigation that will be so costly it will be sometimes difficult to do our jobs and do them right,'' Attorney General Betty Montgomery said.

She pointed out a ruling in June when the court said two suburban Columbus communities were liable under state law for damages in the death of a man hit by fireworks' shrapnel on July 4, 1996.

The decision Wednesday does not mean the state is immediately liable for the deaths at Ohio River Fireworks in Scottown in July 1996. But it means the state can no longer use Ohio's public duty doctrine as a defense.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick dissented, saying governments must be protected or they will be overwhelmed by lawsuits.

''Without the doctrine's protection, the government would be confronted with limitless, unpredictable, and, in extreme circumstances, catastrophic liability, which could drain the very resources that are needed in the first instance to promote the public safety and welfare,'' she wrote.

Stanley Chesley, a lawyer for family members of the nine killed in the fire, said the ruling will give his clients the hearing they deserve.

The justices ''have in essence said the public duty doctrine is dead,'' Chesley said Wednesday. ''We have to look at each case on its facts and its merits.''

Lawyers for the families argued that the fire marshal's office, conducting an undercover operation of illegal fireworks at the store three days before the fire, discovered the sprinkler system had been disabled but did nothing.

Attorneys for the state argued that the families have never proved the store was violating safety regulations or that the sprinkler system was disabled the day of the fire. They also say the families didn't prove they relied on the fire marshal to protect them.

A cigarette spark set off fireworks in the store, and fire and smoke blocked one of the store's two exits.

The man accused of setting the fire, Todd Hall, of nearby Proctorville, was found incompetent to stand trial and was committed to a state mental hospital.

The families are seeking millions of dollars in damages. A ruling is expected by spring. The Associated Press