Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Commonwealth Court Affirms Entry of Summary Judgment In Favor of Municipal Defendant Under Hills and Ridges Doctrine and Tort Claims Act

In its recent decision in the case of Moon v. Dauphin County,  PICS Case No. 15-1832 (Pa. Cmwlth. Dec. 10, 2015 Covey, J.), the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court granted a Defendant County's Motion for Summary Judgment in a slip and fall case.  

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff resided at the Dauphin County Work Release Center in Harrisburg.  He allegedly sustained injuries as a result of a slip and fall that occurred on February 22, 2008 on the Center’s fenced-in-walkway.  

The record before the Court revealed that, when the Plaintiff entered the Center between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. on the date in question, it was raining outside.  Within five (5) minutes after hearing that the Center’s activities were cancelled for the night, the Plaintiff left the building and saw that the walkway was wet.  The Plaintiff admitted that he sensed by the sound of pellets hitting the ground, that the rain was changing to ice.  Accordingly, he carefully continued but unfortunately slipped and fell.

The Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendant County, in part, under the Hills and Ridges Doctrine after finding that the evidence, and the Plaintiff’s own admissions, established that the Plaintiff’s fall occurred at the start of a weather event that created generally slippery conditions.   There was no evidence that the County had allowed any ice or snow to unreasonably accumulate in ridges or elevations.

The Court also rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that a design flaw abrogated the immunity provided by the Hills and Ridges Doctrine.  

The Commonwealth Court noted that, under §8542(a)(2) and §8542(b) of the Tort Claims Act, a local agency will retain immunity from suit unless the claim also falls within an exception to the Tort Claims Act.  

The Court went on to note that liability will not be imposed under the Real Estate Exception of the Tort Claims Act for injuries sustained as a result of a county’s alleged failure to remove a foreign substance from the real property, including ice and/or snow.   Rather, the Court could only be liable under that exception if the snow or ice on the real property resulted from a design or construction defect.  

The Plaintiff argued in this matter that the alleged improper construction defect at issue was that there in only a single exit from the Center leaving the Plaintiff with no alternative but to pass through a gate and into the icy and slippery conditions.   The Court noted that the Plaintiff admitted, however, that the walkway itself was not defective.   

Given that the law requires proof of a defect of the walkway upon which the Plaintiff fell, the Court entered summary judgment for this reason as well.   The Court found that the Plaintiff’s claim that the Center’s single exit constituted a dangerous condition of the real estate was devoid of merit.  

Accordingly, the trial court’s entry of summary judgment was affirmed.  

Anyone wishing to review the Commonwealth Court's decision in Moon may click this LINK.

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