Stephen Stafford, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review
You are driving down a country road on a winter day when you suddenly lose control after hitting a patch of black ice. You crash into a wooden mailbox, and it breaks away, leaving your car slightly damaged, but you are uninjured. Now imagine a different scenario. You crash into a mailbox with a metal support that is fortified in the ground with concrete. The impact flips your vehicle and sends the car rolling down the embankment. Should the landowner that constructed the mailbox be held liable for your damages and injuries? The Supreme Court of Ohio is set to answer that question in the coming months, and the decision could have ramifications that affect all landowners with mailboxes near a roadway, and the motorists passing by.
On June 16, 2021, the Ohio Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Snay v. Burr. The central issue in this case is whether the homeowner, Matthew Burr, owed a duty of care to the motorist, Cletus Snay, when he lost control of his vehicle and struck Burr’s mailbox. While mailbox construction parameters may seem like a minor issue, Snay v. Burr could have far wider implications regarding the duty of care owed by a homeowner to passing motorists. If Burr is found liable, courts will have difficulty deciding where to draw the line regarding what homeowners are allowed to construct or maintain on their property. In contrast, finding no liability allows homeowners a great deal of leeway and the possibility of escaping liability. At risk in this case are the rights of homeowners to build and erect objects near the roadway that meet their own standards. However, the safety of motorists is also at stake if homeowners are allowed to build fortified mailboxes or other objects so close to the roadway. These competing interests each have broader implications on the legal landscape than merely mailbox construction standards. At issue in this case is the foreseeability of the injury, whether the mailbox was a proximate cause, and whether it interfered with the usual and ordinary use of travel.
First, this article will outline the facts and procedural history of Snay v. Burr. Next, this article will explore relevant case law that could inform the Ohio Supreme Court’s upcoming decision. Finally, this article will argue why the Ohio Supreme Court should find in favor of the motorist and deny the homeowner’s motion for summary judgement.
II. Snay v. Burr
On a winter day in Ohio, Cletus Snay drove his truck down Young Road when he unexpectedly lost control of the vehicle on a patch of black ice. After losing control, Snay crashed into Burr’s reinforced mailbox, causing his truck to roll over and leaving Snay permanently paralyzed. One factor in the severity of the accident was the mailbox itself, which Snay constructed after his previous mailbox had been repeatedly vandalized and damaged. Burr constructed the mailbox with a metal pipe, eight inches in diameter and six-and-a-half feet long. He buried the mailbox three feet in the ground and filled the whole with dirt, stones, and concrete mix. Burr consulted the Bellevue Post Office and obtained the recommendations for installing rural mailboxes, which he exceeded in every aspect. Furthermore, he testified that he considered the risk to motorists and understood why the recommendations exist.
B. Procedural History
The 6th District of Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the judgement of the Huron County Court of Common Pleas and awarded summary judgment to Burr, the owner of the mailbox. The court held that Burr was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law because he owed no duty to Snay when he left the traveled portion of the road and struck the mailbox. According to the majority, there was no evidence of proximate causation because Snay’s argument (that the location and erection of the mailbox was the but-for cause of his injuries) was impermissible speculation. In reference to the postal recommendations, the court found that the alleged violations of these recommendations did not constitute negligence per se.
A powerful and detailed dissent written by Judge Mayle pointed out that the majority overlooked the role of foreseeability and Burr’s conscious disregard for the postal service guidelines. Judge Mayle wrote that the majority’s proximate cause analysis was flawed and usurped the role of the jury. Ultimately, the dissent determined that, under the particular facts of this case, Burr had actual knowledge of the unreasonably dangerous hazard that he built and therefore owed Snay a duty; reasonable minds could conclude this duty was breached.
III. Relevant Case Law
Under Ohio law, a cause of action for negligence requires proof of the following four elements: (1) a duty requiring the defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct, (2) breach of that duty, (3) a causal connection between the breach and injury, and (4) actual damages. In Snay v. Burr, the most hotly contested element is whether Burr owed a duty of care to Snay. One essential part of the duty element is the foreseeability of harm arising from the breach of that duty. People are expected to take reasonable precautions against the risk that a reasonably prudent person would anticipate. Foreseeability of harm does not depend on the magnitude, severity, or probability of a particular harm, but instead depends on whether some risk is foreseeable to the reasonably prudent person. Therefore, the existence and scope of duty is determined by the reasonably foreseeable and general risk of harm that is involved. In circumstances where such a duty is established, the minimum standard of care is that of an ordinarily careful and prudent person under similar circumstances. Reasonable foreseeability is considered an element of proximate cause.
In a similar case, the Indiana Court of Appeals did not award summary judgment to the landowner when a motorist struck their mailbox. This case is not controlling to the court in Snay v. Barr, but it could be persuasive. The Indiana court focused on multiple issues, including the foreseeability of the collision and the unreasonable risk presented by the mailbox. The determination of duty is generally meant for a court to decide, but factual questions may be intertwined when determining the existence of a relationship between the parties and the foreseeability of harm. In this case, the court found that the three-foot distance between the road and the mailbox created an issue of fact as to whether the Defendant should have foreseen a collision. Defendant’s brick mailbox was roughly three bricks by three bricks square and caused serious damage to Plaintiff’s car. The court stated that a factual question existed as to whether the Plaintiff owed the Defendant’s a duty to design the mailbox differently. The court cited postal and highway guidelines regarding the recommended strength and size of mailboxes. The brick mailbox exceeded all guidelines, but the court did not hold that the Defendant needed to install a mailbox of a certain size. Instead, the court used the guidelines as probative evidence of what was reasonable.
B. Proximate Cause
The Ohio Supreme Court has long held that there can be more than one proximate cause. When two factors combine to create damages, both are a proximate cause. For the proximate cause element of negligence to be satisfied, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligent conduct is a substantial factor in causing the injury. Whether the defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of the injuries is a question of fact for the jury. The rule for proximate cause is that the injury must be the natural and probable consequence of the alleged negligence.
The 5th District Court of Appeals of Ohio has previously held that regardless of the duty issue, the mailbox could never be the proximate cause of a motorist’s injuries. Instead, the court held that the proximate cause of the injuries was the motorist’s inability to control her vehicle on an icy roadway. In another case, the 5th District Court of Appeals of Ohio determined that the motorist’s action in swerving to avoid a collision was the proximate cause. In this case, the mailbox was constructed of material that did not allow it to breakaway because of past vandalism. However, in Sparks, the court held that the same factual issues that precluded summary judgment on the proximate cause issue also precluded the duty issue. An act is the proximate cause of the injury if it was foreseen or reasonably should have been foreseen as the natural and probable consequence of the act or omission. There is the genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Defendants foresaw or should have foreseen that the motorists would leave the road and strike the mailbox. In Sparks, the court asserted that ordinarily, proximate cause is not properly resolved at the summary judgment stage.
C. Usual and Ordinary Course of Travel
Another prominent issue in Snay is whether the object interfered with the usual and ordinary course of travel. The Supreme Court of Ohio held that a public utility is not liable when a vehicle collides with a utility pole that does not interfere with the usual and ordinary course of travel. In this case, the utility pole was located within the right-of-way, but off the improved portion of the roadway. The right-of-way includes the roadway, shoulders or berm, ditch, and slopes extending to the limit set by the local authority. A motorist using the usual and ordinary course of travel would not have come in contact with the pole and the utility pole did not interfere with the public use of the highway. In Swaisgood, the 6th District Court of Appeals of Ohio found that a utility pole did interfere with the usual and ordinary course of travel because it did not provide clearance for long vehicles. In Turner, the public utility obtained the necessary permit for erecting the utility pole. The Second District Court of Appeals of Ohio determined that there is no precedent for imposing a duty on public or private landowners to remove hazards from the right-of-way if the hazard only renders off-road travel unsafe. The court held that every object on the roadside or road would impose potential liability.
The Supreme Court of Ohio should reverse the award of summary judgment for Burr because there are genuine issues of material fact about the foreseeability and proximate cause of the injury. Summary judgment is inappropriate because there are questions of fact that should be determined by a jury in this case. First, there is the question of whether Burr foresaw or should have foreseen that a motorist would strike his mailbox, causing an injury. Next, the issue of proximate cause raises a question of fact for the jury because reasonable foreseeability is an element of proximate cause. Reasonable minds could differ about the proximate cause of the damages. Based on the facts of this individual case, there should be a jury trial to determine these questions. To avoid future litigation and injuries, the Ohio Legislature should adopt a form of the Postal Service guidelines to ensure uniformity and prevent needless injury from unreasonably fortified mailboxes.
The Supreme Court of Ohio should adopt the reasoning employed by the Sparks court and determine that summary judgement is not appropriate; the foreseeability of the collision is linked with a question of fact and, thus, most appropriately determined by a jury. In Snay, factual questions are intertwined with the determination of his duty of care and the foreseeability of the harm. Comparing Sparks and Snay, the mailbox was further from the road in Sparks, and there was no documented reason for why the motorist left the roadway. In Snay, the motorist inadvertently left the roadway because of a patch of black ice. Furthermore, Burr testified that he could have foreseen the snowplow being damaged by hitting his mailbox. Burr knew about the Bellevue Post Office guidelines and openly disobeyed them, despite understanding their purpose. In Sparks, there was no evidence that the landowner knew about postal or highway guidelines, but the court still used them to show what was reasonable. The Sparks court was able to determine that summary judgment was not proper with far fewer favorable facts than in Snay. Knowledge and understanding of the postal guidelines further provides that Burr should have foreseen a collision. Burr did not have to foresee Snay’s exact injury or an injury of that magnitude to satisfy the foreseeable requirement. At the very least, this creates an issue of material fact for the jury to decide.
Regarding proximate cause, the Ohio Supreme Court should not grant summary judgement to Burr because there is a question of fact about the proximate cause of the injury. The Battista court went too far by proclaiming that the mailbox could never be the proximate cause of the motorist’s injuries. The mailbox could have been a proximate cause of the injuries if it was found by the jury to be the natural and probable consequence of Burr’s negligence. Furthermore, Burr did foresee that a collision with the snowplow and the mailbox could cause damage to the snowplow. The mailbox, the black ice, and Snay’s driving could all be potential proximate causes of the injuries. In Snay, evidence was presented that Snay’s truck would not have overturned and he would not have sustained injuries if the mailbox was constructed with breakaway materials. The expert witness testified that Snay was injured because the mailbox was dangerously reinforced. According to Judge Mayle, reasonable minds could differ whether the mailbox was a proximate cause. The Supreme Court of Ohio should adopt the same reasoning.
The best argument for granting summary judgment is that Burr owed Snay no duty of care because his mailbox did not interfere with the usual and ordinary course of travel. Burr’s mailbox was located off the improved roadway and did not interfere with the flow of traffic. However, the cases that reflect this argument are distinguishable from Snay. In Turner, the main issue is the location of a utility pole and not the construction or materials of the object. In Snay, the issue is whether Burr should be liable because of the way he reinforced the mailbox. Snay’s choice to reinforce his mailbox is inherently different than a utility company installing a standard pole. Snay made the decision to dangerously reinforce the mailbox in the location it was previously. If the location were the only problem, the case might be different. However, the case is about the reinforcement of the mailbox. Additionally, Ramby is distinguishable because the issue is not whether Burr should remove the hazard. The issue is that he made the conscious decision to unreasonably reinforce his mailbox despite the foreseeable harm.
The Restatement Second of Torts §368 provides the standard for a possessor of land that creates a condition that is an unreasonable risk for motorists. According to §368, the possessor of land is subject to liability for harm caused to people that “are traveling on the highway, or foreseeably deviate from it in the ordinary course of travel.” Additionally, the comments to § 368 note that this applies to those that reasonably and expectably deviate from the highway and enter the abutting piece of land in the ordinary course of travel. This is especially true when the deviation is inadvertent. The right to use the highway comes with the right to protection by reasonable care against harm suffered during the deviation.
§368 should be applicable in this situation because Burr created an unreasonable risk for motorists with the construction of his reinforced mailbox. Snay’s deviation from the roadway was reasonable because he lost control on a patch of black ice. On a winter day in Ohio, a reasonable person could find this was a foreseeable deviation in the ordinary course of travel. It was an inadvertent and expectable deviation and therefore, Snay should have the right to protection by reasonable care from Burr, the abutting landowner.
Regardless of whether summary judgment is granted or denied, the court or the legislature needs to determine a standard for dangerous objects on the side of the road. One way to address the problem would be for the legislature to adopt the postal guidelines as law and incorporate them into the Ohio Revised Code. This would create a statutory duty of care to be imported for negligence per se situations in future cases with similar facts. Requiring mailboxes to be constructed with breakaway materials would prevent incidents like Snay’s life altering injury. In contrast, landowners have an interest in protecting their mailbox against vandals and snowplows like Burr. As a result of conflicting interests, courts may continue to decide this issue based on the facts of each case.
The Supreme Court of Ohio should not grant Burr’s motion for summary judgement. Reasonable minds could differ on the element of foreseeability and proximate cause. Burr relies on the argument that he is not liable because his mailbox did not interfere with the usual and ordinary course of travel. The court should consider this argument in addition to his conscious decision to reinforce his mailbox. Ultimately, a jury should determine the issue of Burr’s duty and the proximate cause of the injury. Outside of this case, the court and the legislature will have to determine how to treat these types of cases. The Ohio legislature should adopt a certain standard for mailbox construction to avoid needless injury and constant litigation. An injury like Snay’s could be prevented if there is a proper statute on this issue to impose a duty on landowners. Even if such an injury is not prevented by this potential statute, the statutory duty of care would provide the harmed party recourse for their damages.
 Oral Argument, Snay v. Burr, 160 Ohio St. 3d 1438, 2020-Ohio-4983, 155 N.E.3d 940, https://www.ohiochannel.org/video/supreme-court-of-ohio-case-no-2020-1057-snay-v-burr.
 Snay v. Burr, 156 N.E.3d 399 (Ohio App. 6th Dist. 2020), appeal allowed, 155 N.E.3d 940 (Ohio 2020).
 Id. at 402.
 Id. at 410 (Mayle, J., dissenting).
 Id. at 411.
 Snay, 156 N.E.3d at 409.
 Id. at 406.
 Snay, 156 N.E.3d at 409 (Mayle, J., dissenting).
 Id. at 421.
 Cromer v. Children’s Hosp. Med. Ctr. of Akron, 29 N.E.3d 921, 928 (Ohio 2015).
 Snay, 156 N.E.3d at 402.
 Cromer, 29 N.E.3d at 928.
 Sparks v. White, 899 N.E.2d 21, 30 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008).
 Id. at 22.
 Id. at 23.
 Id. at 24.
 Id. at 25.
 Id. at 28.
 Id. at 27-28.
 Id. at 29.
 Murphy v. Carrollton Mfg. Co., 575 N.E.2d 828, 830 (Ohio 1991).
 Snay, 156 N.E.3d at 421 (Mayle J., dissenting).
 Id. at 422.
 Strother v. Hutchinson, 423 N.E.2d 467, 471 (Ohio 1981).
 Battista v. Bucceri, No. 2014CA00027, 2014 Ohio App. LEXIS 4355 at 8 (Ohio App. 5th Dist. 2014).
 Sweitzer 7 Sweitzer v. Houtman, No. 98CA-E-11-058, 1999 Ohio App. LEXIS 1482 at 7 (Ohio App. 5th Dist. 1999).
 Sparks, 899 N.E.2d at 30.
 Id. at 29 (citing Funston v. Sch. Town of Munster, 849 N.E.2d 595,600 (Ind. 2006)).
 Id. at 30.
 Id. at 29.
 Snay, 156 N.E.3d at 408.
 Turner v. Ohio Bell Tel. Co., 887 N.E.2d 1158, 1163 (Ohio 2007).
 Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 4511.01 (UU)(2).
 Turner, 887 N.E.2d at 1163.
 Swaisgood v. Puder, No. E-06-033, 2007 Ohio App. LEXIS 279 (Ohio App. 6th Dist. 2007).
 Turner, 887 N.E.2d at 1163.
 Ramby v. Ping, No. 93-CA-52, 1994 Ohio App. LEXIS 1539 at 8 (Ohio App. 2nd Dist. 1994).
 Snay, 156 N.E.3d at 410 (Mayle J., dissenting).
 Id. at 411.
 Sparks, 899 N.E.2d at 28.
 Snay, 156 N.E.3d at 411 (Mayle J., dissenting).
 Id. at 422.
 Turner, 887 N.E.2d at 1163.
 Snay, 156 N.E.3d at 403 (Mayle J., dissenting).
 Restatement (Second) of Torts § 368 (1965).
 Restatement (Second) of Torts § 368 cmt. e (1965).