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Involuntary Vehicle Movement & Governmental Immunity: A Closer Look at the Motor Vehicle Exception to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act

December 1, 2016

Defense Digest, Vol. 22, No. 4, December 2016

 

By Patrice M. Turenne, Esq.*

Key Points:

  • Driving records of employees who operate motor vehicles for governmental agencies should be screened.
  • Governmental agencies should consider having their employees complete reports for any motor vehicle accidents they are involved in while at work.
  • As technology advances, the bounds of the motor vehicle exception will continue to evolve.

 

In Balentine v. Chester Water Auth., 140 A.3d 69 (Pa.Commw.Ct. 2016), a case of first impression, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court recently addressed the motor vehicle exception to the governmental immunity bestowed by the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (Tort Claims Act), 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 8541-42. It held that the involuntary movement of a vehicle caused by the actions of a third party does not constitute operation sufficient to trigger the application of the motor vehicle exception.

The plaintiff, individually and as Administratrix of the estate of Edwin Omar Medina-Flores, filed a complaint against the Chester Water Authority, its employee, and the owner and operator of another vehicle. The plaintiff alleged that the Water Authority’s employee negligently parked its truck, which was then struck by another vehicle, causing the vehicle to pin the decedent, ultimately leading to his untimely death. The Water Authority argued that it was immune from liability under the Tort Claims Act. The plaintiff responded by arguing that her claim qualified under two exceptions. Most important for our purposes, the plaintiff argued that her claim qualified under the motor vehicle exception. The trial court granted the Water Authority’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

A brief overview of the motor vehicle exception is helpful for the purpose of understanding the potential implications of Balentine. The motor vehicle exception specifically states that a governmental agency can be held liable for injuries caused by the operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the agency. A motor vehicle for the purpose of the exception is defined as any vehicle that is self-propelled and any attachment thereto, including vehicles operated by rail, through water or in the air.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that a stopped car could still be considered in operation for the purposes of the exception. The court quickly distinguished all of the plaintiff’s cited cases on the issue and did find one case cited by the plaintiff particularly helpful in its analysis. In Mickle v. City of Philadelphia, 707 A.2d 1124 (Pa. 1998), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court highlighted the idea that negligence related to the operation of a vehicle encompasses not only how a person drives but whether they should be driving. The court then turned to the cases cited by the Water Authority to support its argument that a stopped vehicle is not in operation for purposes of the motor vehicle exception.

In Love v. City of Philadelphia, 543 A.2d 531 (Pa. 1988), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that to operate means to put something in motion and mere acts of preparation to operate or cessation of operation do not count as actual operation. By way of example, getting into or out of a vehicle would not constitute operation under the holding in Love. Furthermore, under the holding of Pennsylvania State Police v. Robinson, 554 A.2d 172 (Pa.Commw.Ct. 1991), even a police vehicle stopped for the purpose of allowing an officer the ability to assist a disabled motorist is not considered in operation for the purpose of the exception.

Additionally, a vehicle stopped but still running with flashers activated would not be considered in operation under First National Bank of Pennsylvania v. Department of Transportation, 609 A.2d 911 (Pa.Commw.Ct 1992). In First National Bank, the plaintiff’s decedent was injured when his car collided with the defendant agency’s vehicle, which was left parked, but running, on the side of the road with the flasher activated while the employee placed delineators on an adjacent highway. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that the vehicle was not in operation because it was not temporarily stopped in traffic and because the injuries alleged were not caused by any moving part of the vehicle. Finally, even a negligently parked car does not qualify as in operation pursuant to the holding in City of Philadelphia v. Melendez, 627 A.2d 234 (Pa.Commw.Ct. 1993) if the vehicle is already parked at the time of a collision.

After analyzing the cases relied upon by both parties, the court turned to the facts at issue. The court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment on the issue of the applicability of the motor vehicle exception. The court reasoned that the motor vehicle exception did not apply because, although the Water Authority’s truck was running at the time of the collision, it was parked and only moved, involuntarily, as a result of being struck by a vehicle operated by a third party. The court signaled that the outcome may have been different if the plaintiff had alleged that the vehicle was not fully parked, that the injury alleged was caused by an involuntary movement of the truck’s parts or an attachment to the truck, or that the truck had been negligently maintained or repaired.

*Patrice is an associate in our King of Prussia, Pennsylvania office. She can be reached at 610-354-8467 or pmturenne@mdwcg.com

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Defense Digest, Vol. 22, No. 4, December 2016. 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. © 2016 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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