Sunday, March 7, 2010

PennDOT Continues to Enjoy the Protection of Pennsylvania Courts

Two recent cases, one out of the Commonwealth Court and one out of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas, confirm that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) continues to enjoy the protection of the court in liability claims arising out of motor vehicle accidents.

In Stein v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, 2010 WL 521156 (Pa. Cmwlth. Feb. 16, 2010 Leavitt, J.), the Commonwealth Court held that the Commonwealth was immune from suit arising out of an accident during which a guiderail end treatment folded back and impaled the driver, causing fatal injuries. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court's judgment in favor of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Plaintiff argued that a claim based on the negligent design of the guardrail in question fit within the real estate exception to the Sovereign Immunity Act.

The Stein court rejected this argument noting that, in Dean v. Department of Transportation, 751 A.2d 1130 (Pa. 2000), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that "[a]bsent legislative directive, however, we conclude that the real estate exception does not apply to the failure to install a guardrail."

The Stein court also noted that in Fagan v. Department of Transportation, 946 A.2d 1123 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008) the Commonwealth Court held that the commonwealth was immune "from suit regarding the design and maintenance of [a] guardrail." The Stein court held that nothing in this case or plaintiff's arguments convinced it to change that holding.

Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court entry of judgment in favor of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

The Stein v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission opinion can be viewed online at

Judgment was also entered in favor of the Commonwealth defendant in a recent Berks County case stemming from an accident involving a telephone pole.

In Mayer v. Verizon-Pennsylvania, PICS Case No. 10-1270 (C.P. Berks Jan.22, 2010 Lash, J.), the Berks County Court of Common Pleas held that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) enjoyed immunity from a suit raising a claim that its plan for highway utility pole placement was deficient.

In this case, the Plaintiff's decedent lost control on a snowy road of her car and struck a wooden utility pole. Plaintiff sued Verizon-Pennsylvania alleging that the utility pole was negligently placed and managed. Verizon joined PennDOT, alleging that PennDOT analyzed utility pole placement and advised utilities on whether the poles were placed in acceptable locations. Utilities were required to obtain PennDOT approval for pole placement. Thus, Verizon claimed any negligence must be attributed to PennDOT.

The Mayer court rejected Verizon's cross-claim and ruled that such claims did not fall within any of the exceptions to the Sovereign Immunity Act. The "highway exception," in particular, only applies to the breach of a duty to properly design, construct and maintain the paved portions of highways and the berm or shoulder, and does not include the remainder of the right-of-way within PennDOT's control.

The court in Mayer therefore found that the law excluded any claims against PennDOT based on theories that PennDOT allegedly owed duties pertaining to maintaining "clear zones" of safety for drivers on that right-of-way.

With these rulings, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas followed the general rule of no liability for PennDOT and granted summary judgment in favor of PennDOT.

A copy of the Mayer case can be secured for a small fee by calling the Pennsylvania Law Weekly's Instant Case Service (1-800-276-7427) and giving the above noted PICS Case Number.

Source: Case Digests in 3/8/10 Pennsylvania Law Weekly

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