Friday, October 30, 2015

Superior Court Addresses Liability of Premises Owner Where Vehicle Strikes Plaintiff On Sidewalk In Front of Premises

In its recent decision in the case of Truax v. Roulhac, No. 1797 EDA 2013, 2015 Pa. Super. 217 (Pa. Super. Oct. 7, 2015) (en banc) (Op. by Mundy, J.) (Jenkins, J., dissenting), the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the liability of premises owners relative to a pedestrian who was injured when a vehicle drove onto the sidewalk area in front of the Defendants' buildings and pinned the Plaintiff to the buildings resulting in personal injuries.

According to the Opinion, in the area of the accident, the parking lot surface was level with the sidewalk area. The only barrier to vehicles between the parking lot area and the sidewalk area was a five (5) inch tall concrete wheel stop.

The pedestrian Plaintiff was injured by a DUI driver who drove over the wheel stop and struck the Plaintiff.

During the course of the litigation, the premises owners Defendants filed separate Motions for Summary Judgment asserting, in part, that the harm was not foreseeable because the premises owners were unaware any similar incidents of motor vehicles jumping the wheel stops.

The premises owners Defendants also argued that they were under no duty to install any other types of barriers to separate the parking lot from the sidewalk area.

One the premises owners Defendants also asserted that he had maintained his duty as a possessor of land because the wheel stops comply with applicable zoning ordinances governing commercial off street parking.

An initial panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court had previously issued a Memorandum Opinion affirming the granting of summary judgment. With this re-argument en banc, the Superior Court reversed the remanded the case for further proceedings.

After reviewing the law of premises liability, and in particular, the highest duty of care owed to business invitees, the en banc Superior Court found that it was reasonably foreseeable that a vehicle operated by a third party could encroach upon the sidewalk such that the premises owners had a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect its business invitees from that harm. The Superior Court noted that there was sufficient evidence, including expert opinion evidence, supporting the Plaintiff’s claims. The Court found that, reviewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the injured party, required that the issues be allowed to proceed to a jury for a determination.

The Superior Court noted its disagreement with the trial court’s Opinion that the risk of a vehicle encroaching upon a sidewalk is per se unforeseeable as a matter of law. Rather, the issue of foreseeability in this regard should be submitted to a jury unless the Plaintiff altogether fails to present evidence on that issue.

On the second issue, the Superior Court agreed with the Plaintiff’s contention that the trial court erred by concluding the premises owners discharged their duty as a matter of law by complying with applicable building codes and ordinances. The Superior Court found that, while compliance with law or administrative regulation can, at times, relieve the tortfeasor from a finding of negligence per se, such compliance does not establish, as a matter of law, that due care was exercised.

Accordingly, the court stated that, although a defendant can introduce evidence of its compliance with the law or regulation as evidence of the exercise of due care, compliance with that law regulation does not prevent a finding of negligence where a jury could find that a reasonable person would have taken additional precautions.

Turning the facts of the case before, the Superior Court found that, while the premises owners’ maintenance of concrete wheel stops in accord with applicable building codes and ordinances could be evidence of the premises owners’ exercise of due care, such evidence was not conclusive on the issue of whether or not the premises owners exercises due care as a matter of law so as to relieve them of liability. Rather, these issues should have been allowed by the trial court to proceed to the jury.

Consequently, the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. Judge Jenkins filed a dissenting Opinion.

Anyone wishing to review the Majority Opinion in Truax online may click this LINK.

Judge Jenkins Dissenting Opinion in Truax can be viewed Here.


I send thanks to Attorney Thomas J. Foley, III of the Foley Law Firm in Scranton for providing me with a copy of this decision. Attorney Foley served as the Amicus Brief writer for the Pennsylvania Association for Justice in this matter.  

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