Court bashes City of Youngstown's 'extreme incompetence' in wrongful death case
A US District Court Judge issued a legal blow to the City of Youngstown Thursday in a ruling granting US Specialty Insurance Co's motion for summary judgement against the City in a case related to a wrongful death that occurred in 2017.
The 16-page ruling includes a harsh rebuke of the City and its law director, Jeff Limbian, which Judge John R. Adams says exhibited "extreme incompetence in litigating the case" up to the point that the City enlisted the assistance of outside counsel.
The underlying case is over an insurance claim filed by the City of Youngstown with its insurance company, US Specialty Insurance Co (Specialty), following an incident where a tree on City property fell on motorcyclist Thomas Morar on June 17th, 2017.
In September of that year, Morar's attorney advised the City of Morar's injuries and inquired whether the City was insured for the incident. The City replied on October 17th, 2017, saying they had "investigated the accident...and we believe that the City is immune from liability in this matter."
A year and nine months later, in April of 2019, Morar died, leading to a wrongful death lawsuit filed on the behalf of Morar's estate by its executor, Cheryl Durig.
The wrongful death lawsuit, which seeks to recover $5 million from the City, was set to begin in May of 2019. but just days before it began, Specialty filed its own lawsuit against the City claiming its insurance claim in the incident was invalid.
The City's policy through Specialty, according to the ruling, reads in part, "[The City] must see to it that [Specialty] are notified as soon as practicable of an "occurrence" or an offense which may result in a claim."
The ruling goes on further to show that the City "waited nearly five years" to notify Specialty of the incident, only doing so after outside counsel had been brought in to litigate the underlying case, and after Morar's estate said it would be seeking $5 million in the judgement.
In it's defense against Specialty's case, the City claims that it did not inform Specialty of the incident because it deemed at the time that it was not liable for Morar's injury or later death.
The ruling denies that defense, saying the "The City failed to give timely notice here and the 'unexcused significant delay' was unreasonable as a matter of law."
"There is no dispute that the incident occurred on September 6, 2017, the lawsuit was filed on June 14, 2019, and the city did not notify Specialty until April 7, 2022...At its core, this case is little more than the City attempting to get a second bite at the proverbial apple to cover up its extreme incompetence in litigating the case up to that point of finally hiring outside counsel who notified Specialty," the ruling says.
The ruling then goes on to criticize City Law Director Jeff Limbian, who was deposed in the case as the "best individual to speak on behalf of the City on the facts surrounding the underlying litigation." Limbian became Law Director in 2018, and thus oversaw the City's legal affairs throughout most of the time period in question.
"Upon review of [Limbian's] testimony, it becomes clear just how ill equipped the city was to handle the underlying litigation. Throughout his testimony, Limbian justified his complete lack of oversight in the legal department by repeatedly stating that he was not familiar with the Civil Rules or anything dealing with civil liability."
When asked for comment on the ruling, Limbian told 21 News that the city plans to appeal the decision, saying "the City law department will remain committed to sticking to the facts and the insurance common law as it proceeds through the appeal process in this matter."
When asked to specifically respond to the ruling's criticism of his oversight and the City's handling of the underlying case, Limbian declined to comment.
21 News has also reached out to Youngstown Mayor Jamael "Tito" Brown, but have yet to hear back.