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Movement No Longer Required: Expansion of the “Operation of Motor Vehicle” Exception in Municipal Cases Since Balentine

June 1, 2019

Defense Digest, Vol. 25, No. 2, June 2019

By Michael L. Detweiler, Esq.*

Key Points:

  • Claims against local governmental agencies pursuant to vehicle liability exception were actionable only if harm was caused by the voluntary movement of a government vehicle.
  • Supreme Court has determined that movement of a vehicle, whether voluntary or involuntary, is not required by language of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity under PSTCA.

 

The Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (PSTCA), 42 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 8541, et. seq, provides local governmental agencies in Pennsylvania with qualified immunity for tort liability, subject to eight enumerated exceptions. One of those exceptions, the “vehicle liability exception,” was expanded dramatically in scope last August by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, 191 A.3d 799 (Pa. 2018). For 30 years, claims against local governmental agencies pursuant to the vehicle liability exception were actionable only if the injuries or damages were caused by the voluntary movement of a government vehicle. For example, see Love v. City of Philadelphia, 543 A.2d 531 (Pa. 1988). Now, however, the Balentine court has determined that movement of a vehicle, whether voluntary or involuntary, is not required by the statutory language of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity under the PSTCA.

In Balentine, the decedent was a contractor hired by the Chester Water Authority to rehabilitate a section of its water distribution system. On the afternoon of August 15, 2012, the decedent was working on the side of a two-lane road with no parking lanes on either lane of travel. The decedent was inside a ditch located between the sidewalk and the curb when a Water Authority inspector drove up to the work site and parked his vehicle, with the engine running, approximately 10 to 15 feet from the ditch. Testimony from workers at the worksite indicate that the Water Authority vehicle was either 80 percent or “completely” in the roadway while parked.

The Water Authority inspector activated the vehicle’s four-way flashers and the amber strobe light on the roof of the vehicle, which he then exited. He walked to the front of the vehicle and placed blueprints on the hood. Approximately five minutes later, a vehicle operated by a third party (not affiliated with the Water Authority) struck the inspector’s parked vehicle, causing it to move forward. The Water Authority vehicle struck the decedent as he worked in the ditch, dragging him and pinning him under the vehicle when it came to a stop.

The governmental defendants obtained summary judgment from the lower court, arguing that the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity did not apply. On appeal, relying on the fact that the Water Authority vehicle was parked at the time of the accident, the Commonwealth Court affirmed, describing itself as “constrained” to conclude as a matter of law that the vehicle was no longer in operation when the accident occurred. Consequently, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the involuntary movement of a vehicle does not constitute operation for purposes of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed the Commonwealth Court decision on appeal and centered its focus on the import and meaning of the vehicle liability exception, which states in pertinent part:

(b) Acts which may impose liability.--The following acts by a local agency or any of its employees may result in the imposition of liability on a local agency:

(1) Vehicle liability.--The operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the local agency, provided that the local agency shall not be liable to any plaintiff that claims liability under this subsection if the plaintiff was, during the course of the alleged negligence, in flight or fleeing apprehension or resisting arrest by a police officer or knowingly aided a group, one or more of whose members were in flight or fleeing apprehension or resisting arrest by a police officer. As used in this paragraph, “motor vehicle” means any vehicle which is self-propelled and any attachment thereto, including vehicles operated by rail, through water or in the air.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(1).

The Supreme Court held that the the word “operation” was not defined in the PSTCA and applied definitions of “operation” from both Black’s Law Dictionary (“the process of operating or mode of action”) and the American Heritage Dictionary (“to run or control the functioning of: operate a machine”). Moreover, the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity refers only to “operation,” not to “motion.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court adopted the dissenting opinion of Justice Newman in Warrick v. Pro Cor Ambulance, Inc., 739 A.2d 127, 128-129 (Pa. 1999), who opined: “The process of operating a vehicle encompasses more than simply moving the vehicle. When a person ‘operates’ a vehicle, he makes 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.”

The Supreme Court, therefore, reversed the decision of the Commonwealth Court. It remanded the matter to the trial court, holding that the plaintiff had pled facts sufficient to establish a prima facie cause of action in negligence base on acts that constitute the operation of a vehicle, thereby invoking the governmental immunity exception.

The Balentine decision reverses 30 years of Pennsylvania precedent requiring voluntary movement of a vehicle in order for the vehicle exception of the PSTCA to apply. In addition, the court held that where a vehicle obstructs a roadway, it is assumed that a government agent operated the vehicle to arrive at that position. The Balentine decision also means that the scope of “vehicle liability exception” to the PSTCA may be expanded to any applicable negligent theory involving a ‘non-moving’ governmental vehicle. Perhaps most importantly, the Balentine decision is a dramatic reminder of the fluid interpretation of the PSTCA and the tendency of the courts to expand the scope of the eight enumerated exceptions. It is imperative that municipalities, local government agencies and their carriers keep abreast of these developments to ensure that these entities do not rely on PSTCA immunity arguments that are no longer recognized by the courts in Pennsylvania.

*Michael is a shareholder in our King of Prussia, Pennsylvania office. He can be reached at 610.354.8271 or mldetweiler@mdwcg.com.

 

 

 

Defense Digest, Vol. 25, No. 2, June 2019. Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2019 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact tamontemuro@mdwcg.com.

 

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