Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Overrules 30 Years of Precedent Pertaining to Motor Vehicle Exception to Governmental Immunity Under Tort Claims Act

In the case of Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, No. 119 MAP 2016 (Pa. Aug. 21, 2018 Mundy, J.) (Justices Todd, Dougherty, and Wecht joined in the majority Opinion) (Baer, J., concurring) (Saylor, dissenting, J.), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the Commonwealth Court erred in holding that the involuntary movement of a vehicle does not constitute operation of a motor vehicle for purposes of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity under 42 Pa. C.S.A. §8542(b)(1).   The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court's decision and, in the process, 30 years of precedent on the issue presented.

By way of background, the Plaintiff's decedent was a contractor hired to rehabilitate a section of a water distribution system.  At the time of the accident, the decedent was working just off to the side of a two lane road.   The decedent was inside a ditch located on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb when an inspector drove up to the work site and parked his vehicle, with the engine running, approximately 10-15 feet from the ditch.  

A few moments later, a vehicle operated by another person struck the inspector's parked vehicle, causing it to move forward.   The parked vehicle struck the decedent was he stood in the ditch, drug him out and pinned him under the vehicle when it came to a stop. The decedent sustained fatal injuries.  

The decedent's estate filed a lawsuit against various Defendants.  Certain governmental Defendants obtained summary judgment from the lower court under an argument that neither the motor vehicle exception nor the traffic control device exception to governmental immunity set forth in the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applied.   On appeal, a divided panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court's decision.   

At the Commonwealth Court level, that court indicated that, since “no Pennsylvania case law addresses whether involuntary movement of a vehicle constitutes operation for purposes of the governmental immunity exception, this is a matter of first impression.”  

Relying upon the fact that the vehicle at issue was parked at the time of the accident, the majority in the Commonwealth Court considered itself “constrained” to conclude as a matter of law that that vehicle was no longer in operation when the accident occurred.  As such, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the involuntary movement of that vehicle did not constitute ‘operation’ for purposes of the motor vehicle exceptions to governmental immunity.  

Further up on the appellate ladder, after reviewing the law behind the Tort Claims Act, the majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that movement of a vehicle, whether voluntary or involuntary, is not required by the statutory language of the vehicle liability exception. 

As such, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the lower courts and remanded the case back  the trial court.  

In reaching its decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court confirmed that the word “operation” was not defined in the Tort Claims Act.   As such, the Supreme Court turned to Black’s Law Dictionary and prior Pennsylvania case law addressing the proper definition of that term in this context.   The majority emphasized that the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity only referred to “operation,” and not to “motion.”  

With its ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned thirty (30) years of precedent on this particular issue, including numerous prior decisions where the immunity was held to apply in accidents involving vehicles that are stopped or parked.   That is no longer the law under this decision.  

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled, in this case, that “[w]here a government vehicle obstructs a roadway, in whole or in part, we can assume, absent evidence to the contrary, that a government agent operated the vehicle to arrive at that position.”  See Op. 15.  

More specifically with respect to this case, the court found that, if a Plaintiff establishes that his injury was caused by an illegally parked government vehicle, but the movement of the vehicle itself did not cause the injury, the government would not avoid liability simply because the government vehicle was not “in motion” at the time of the injury.  Id. at 15-16.  

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the definition of an operation of a vehicle voiced by Justice Newman in her Dissenting Opinion in the case of Warrick v. Pro Cor Ambulance, Inc., 739 A.2d 127, 129 (Pa. 1999) (Newman, J. dissenting).  

Justice Newman recognized in that Dissenting Opinion that the operation of a vehicle “reflects a continuum of activity,” which entails “a series of decisions and actions, taken together, which transport the individual from one place to another.   The decisions of where and whether to park, where and whether to turn, whether to engage brake lights, whether to use appropriate signals, whether to turn lights on or off, and the like, are all part of the ‘operation’ of a vehicle.”  Id. at 128. (Newman, J. dissenting). 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this Balentine case adopted Justice Newman’s definition, and found that definition to represent a reasonable standard that comports with the intent of the legislature behind the Tort Claims Act and avoids what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court deemed to be illogical results over the past 30 years of precedent that flowed from the prior emphasis on the need for motion in the previous cases.  

The Majority Opinion of the Court in Balentine can be viewed HERE.

Justice Baer's Concurring Opinion can be viewed HERE.

Chief Justice Saylor's Dissenting Opinion can be viewed HERE.

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