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Although it said its ruling was “seemingly unjust,” the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court was compelled to deny a man’s argument that a police officer’s bicycle was a “motor vehicle” under an exception to governmental immunity. In Harding v. City of Philadelphia, a three-judge panel led by Commonwealth Court Judge Jess Jiuliante said the motor vehicle exception is clear — it applies only to self-propelled devices. City of Philadelphia Police Officer Joseph Ferraro was on routine bicycle patrol on Feb. 26, 1998, when he struck 74-year-old George Harding to the ground, injuring Harding’s face, head and leg. Ferraro had been bicycling on the sidewalk in violation of Philadelphia City Code Section 12-808. Harding filed a civil complaint against the city and Ferraro alleging negligence per se for the officer’s violation of the ordinance. The Philadelphia Common Pleas Court decided Harding’s claim was barred by governmental immunity. The trial judge said the motor vehicle exception was not applicable to accidents involving a bicycle. On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Harding argued the wording of the exception was not clear. The statute says a local agency may be liable for an accident caused by the “operation of any motor vehicle” in its possession or control. The statute defines “motor vehicle” as “any vehicle which is self-propelled and any attachment thereto, including vehicle operated by rail, through water or in the air.” Harding wanted the court to interpret the definition as including “all instrumentalities used by or operated on behalf of a political subdivision,” Jiuliante said. Harding pointed out that police officers were not using bicycles in the course of their employment when the statute was enacted. Harding also argued that a court is free to look at a statute’s heading in order to determine legislative intent. The title of the section at issue is “Vehicle Liability,” which Harding argued meant the Legislature intended to include all vehicles. Even if the Legislature did not mean to include bicycles, Harding claimed that was an injustice the court should rectify. In contrast, the city argued the exceptions to immunity should be interpreted narrowly and that the court should look only at legislative history when a statute is unclear. However, the city argued the statute was not ambiguous. The city argued the exception’s language referred only to vehicles that are self-propelled. “The city notes that Pennsylvania courts have consistently held that bicycles are not self-propelled, but instead propelled by human power,” Jiuliante said. “Thus, it contends that under the statutorily provided definition, a bicycle is not included.” Jiuliante said the court was compelled to agree with the city. “We must agree with the city. The language of the vehicle exception is clear; bicycles are vehicles, but not motor vehicles,” Jiuliante said. “Regretfully, this is simply a case where the applicability of an unequivocal statutory provision renders a seemingly unjust result.”

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