Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Pennsylvania Superior Court Finds That NJ Transit Not Entitled To Sovereign Immunity Relative To Bus Accident in Pennsylvania

In the case of Galette v. N.J. Transit, No. 2210 EDA 2021 (Pa. Super. March 21, 2023 Bowes, J., Lazarus, J., and Olson, J.) (Op. by Bowes, J.), the court addressed whether the New Jersey Transit Corporation was entitled to sovereign immunity from a personal injury motor vehicle accident lawsuit arising out of an accident that occurred in Philadelphia.

The trial court had denied the Motion to Dismiss filed by N.J. Transit based upon an argument that that Defendant was an arm of the State of New Jersey and was protected by the state afforded governmental and sovereign immunities such that the Plaintiff’s Complaint was barred and should be dismissed.

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court's denial of the motion to dismiss.

N.J. Transit had asserted that the case against it should have been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction where N.J. Transit, as a foreign state entity, did not provide consent to be sued in another state and where that Defendant had rightfully asserted its state sovereign immunity protections under the United States Constitution.

After reviewing the history of the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, which dates back to English common law, and after examining the relevant case law, including United States Supreme Court precedent, the Pennsylvania Superior Court rejected N.J. Transit’s arguments that it should be dismissed from the case.

The Superior Court noted that the issue of sovereign immunity often rises in the context of interstate lawsuits. The court noted that, under the law, it was not automatically incumbent upon one State to recognize the sovereign immunity of another State.

The court also noted that, although the State of New Jersey was not directly named as a Defendant in this suit, well-settled law holds that sovereign immunity does also extend to entities which are agents or instrumentalities of a state such that a lawsuit brought against the entity would, for all practical purposes, be considered to be a suit against the state itself.

As such, the court addressed the issue of whether N.J. Transit was an instrumentality of the State of New Jersey as it alleged.

The Superior Court noted that N.J. Transit relied upon a previous decision out of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals which had previously held that N.J. Transit does indeed qualify as an instrumentality of the State of New Jersey for purposes of sovereign immunity.

However, the Superior Court noted that the holdings of the Third Circuit are not binding upon the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

Turning to Pennsylvania’s own 6-part test on whether sovereign immunity should be applied, the court in this Galette case ultimately found that that test was not dispositive on the question.

As such, the court noted that it was required to address whether allowing N.J. Transit to be sued would thwart the two principal purposes of the Eleventh Amendment, that is, the protection of New Jersey’s dignity as a sovereign State and the protection of New Jersey’s Treasury against involuntary depletion of funds by virtue of lawsuits brought by private persons.

In coming to its ruling, the Pennsylvania Superior Court analogized cases that are brought against SEPTA, or the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, in Pennsylvania. 

The court noted that, in such lawsuits, those suits proceed against SEPTA alone, as a wholly independent entity and without the involvement of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As such, the Commonwealth cannot be subject to any Order of Court as a result of such a personal injury suit. Therefore, no right or interests of the Commonwealth would be affected by the outcome of any lawsuit against SEPTA in Pennsylvania courts. Consequently, personal injury lawsuits against SEPTA do not pose any danger that the Commonwealth itself would be involuntarily subject to and controlled by the mandates of the courts, without its consent, at the instance of private parties.

Based upon this analysis, the court in this Galette case found that the particulars of N.J. Transit’s status with respect to the State of New Jersey was similar. N.J. Transit was noted to be a distinct legal entity that is empowered to sue and to be sued in a capacity that is independent from the State of New Jersey.

The court found that there was no risk to the sovereign dignity of the State of New Jersey in permitting a suit against N.J. Transit to proceed. The court also noted that any potential judgment against N.J. Transit would not have any discernible impact on the New Jersey Treasury.

Based upon this analysis, the court found that the Plaintiff’s personal injury lawsuit posed no threat either to the sovereign dignity or the State Treasury of New Jersey. As such, the court concluded that N.J. Transit was not an arm of the State of New Jersey in this context. 

Consequently, the court ruled that N.J. Transit was not entitled to protections of sovereign immunity which it had asserted. Accordingly, the trial court’s denial of N.J. Transit’s Motion to Dismiss was affirmed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in this Galette case.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

Source: “Pennsylvania Civil Law Case Alerts,” Fastcase.com as provided by Pennsylvania Bar Association.

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