Pennsylvania Supreme Court Narrows Scope Of Governmental Immunity Under The Motor Vehicle Liability Exception
Recently, in Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, et. al. the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed whether the motor vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity in Pennsylvania allows an individual to sue a local agency where the individual is injured as a result of the local agency’s use of a vehicle that is not moving at the time of the injury.
CAN YOU SUE SEPTA IF YOU WERE INJURED ON THEIR BUS?
Under Section 8541 of the Tort Claims Act, a local agency is generally immune from damages for personal injuries caused by the acts of the local agency unless one of the exceptions set forth in Section 8542 applies.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Balentine, addressed the vehicle liability exception to immunity, which provides, in relevant part, that a local agency may be liable for damages for personal injuries sustained as a result of ‘the operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the local agency.”
Previously, the Court had held that a vehicle, such as a SEPTA bus, must actually be in motion for an injured individual to file a lawsuit against the local agency under the vehicle liability exception to the Tort Claims Act.
Practically, this meant that if a person was getting on or off of a SEPTA bus, or the bus was stopped at the time of the injury, that individual would not be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against SEPTA because the vehicle was not actually in motion at the time of the injury. This led to endless litigation concerning whether the local agency’s vehicle was actually in operation at the time of the injury, often with inconsistent results.
The Court held that in order for the vehicle liability exception to apply the injured person must allege facts sufficient to demonstrate not only that a government employee operated the vehicle in question, but also that the injury was caused by the employee’s negligent act.
Thus, for example, if a plaintiff establishes that his injury was caused by an illegally parked SEPTA bus, but the bus was not moving at the time and thus the movement of the bus did not cause the injuries, the government can no longer avoid liability simply because the bus was not “in motion” at the time of the injury.
The Balentine decision is a victory for plaintiffs injured as a result of the negligence of SEPTA drivers and employees. The decision provides much needed clarification and logic to the application of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity under the Tort Claims Act.