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The motor vehicle exclusion to governmental immunity is not implicated in a case against an ambulance company where the company’s driver failed to follow driving directions to the home of a man in cardiac arrest, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled. The justices chose a narrow reading of the exclusion, which would allow fewer complaints to be brought on the basis of the alleged negligence of ambulance drivers responding to emergency calls. The high court in Regester v. County of Chester disagreed with plaintiff Alice K. Regester’s theory that any decisions made during the driving of a government vehicle fall under the exception. “Here, while properly acknowledging that there is some range of negligence associated with the physical operation of a vehicle beyond actual driving that will implicate the vehicle liability exception, the Commonwealth Court correctly concluded that the form of negligence alleged by the Regesters does not qualify,” Justice Thomas G. Saylor wrote. “To the contrary, such allegations of negligence on the part of Longwood [Fire Company Inc.] and its agents in failing to maintain adequate familiarity with the emergency service area and follow provided directions is more closely associated with the public service involved (ambulance service) than it is with the physical operation of the vehicle as such.” The high court also said that � 11(j)(2) of the Emergency Medical Services Act (EMSA) provides immunity for EMS personnel but not their “corporate, institutional or organizational principals.” On Sept. 8, 1996, shortly after 7 p.m., George E. Regester III went into cardiac arrest. Regester’s family phoned the local EMS number and gave the address and accurate driving directions, the court said. The emergency services operator called the Longwood Fire Company Inc., which provides volunteer services, and the Southern Chester County Medical Center (SCCMC), which operates a mobile critical care unit. The operator also gave out the driving directions, which, the Regesters alleged, should have allowed the EMS personnel to arrive at their home in three to four minutes. According to the opinion, both sets of EMS personnel were delayed in arriving at the Regester home because they didn’t follow the directions. At 7:30, Regester vomited, blocking his airway. When EMS personnel arrived, they were unable to revive Regester. Members of Regester’s estate and family filed a wrongful death and survival action against Longwood and SCCMC. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of both defendants. “The [trial] court deemed Longwood a local agency entitled to assert governmental immunity,” Saylor wrote. “Additionally, the trial court reasoned that, since Longwood’s ambulance was not actually driven in a negligent manner and no causal relationship existed between its physical operation and the harm to Mr. Regester, the vehicle liability exception to the general rule of immunity in favor of local agencies was inapplicable.” “Concerning SCCMC, the trial court [found] … that, under Section 11(j)(2) of the EMSA, immunity from civil liability for negligence extends to organizations whose personnel provide emergency medical services.” The Commonwealth Court affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding that the grant of summary judgment for SCCMC should be reversed. The intermediate appeals court said the language of the EMSA did not afford SCCMC immunity. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to address the application of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity as well as the scope of the liability provision of the EMSA as it pertains to corporate and institutional principals. On appeal, the Regesters asked the court for a broad interpretation of immunity standards, asserting that all negligent decision-making of government actors while operating a vehicle should constitute negligent operation under the exception. Longwood, however, asked the court to interpret the immunity exceptions narrowly. The court said it would keep with the Legislature’s intent and used the narrow interpretation. “Certainly various decisions of this court and of the Commonwealth Court establish that the vehicle liability exception encompasses more than merely negligent driving,” Saylor wrote. “There is no controlling authority, however, for the proposition advanced by the Regesters that any and all decisions made during the physical operation of a vehicle implicate the exception. “Indeed, in maintaining a narrow interpretation of the vehicle liability exception to comport with the legislative purposes involved, this court has declined to sanction its extension to conduct more closely associated with the panoply of public functions served by governmental vehicles than with the physical operation of the vehicle itself.” The court next turned to examining the limitations of liability under � 11(j)(2) of the EMSA. SCCMC argued that since EMS providers can only act through their agents, the immunity afforded the EMS workers should be extended to the institutional entity. “As the Commonwealth Court held, the operative provisions of Section 11 also do not convey an intention for immunity to extend to institutional, corporate and organizational entities,” Saylor wrote. “Indeed, Section 11(j)(2) is unambiguous in its limitation of immunity coverage to emergency medical technicians, EMT-paramedics, health care professionals and certain supervised students.” The court said each of the above categories consists of individuals. Saylor said the court would not step outside the parameters the Legislature had chosen. The court’s decision affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s ruling. Justice Sandra Schultz Newman filed a separate concurring and dissenting opinion that Justice Russell M. Nigro joined. In her opinion, Newman said she agreed that SCCMC doesn’t enjoy immunity under the EMSA but disagreed with the majority’s conclusion on the governmental immunity issue. “The Regesters presented evidence to the trial court that the Longwood ambulance driver failed to follow the directions that the Regesters provided,” Newman wrote. “As following directions inherently implicates, at the very least, the decision of where and whether to turn, it constitutes an act in the operation of the motor vehicle. “Accordingly, I believe that the Commonwealth Court erred in affirming summary judgment in favor of Longwood.” Philadelphia attorney Thomas D. Schneider and Media, Pa., attorney Joseph M. Fioravanti represented the Regesters. Jeffrey H. Quinn of Pittsburgh-based Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote represented Longwood. Howard M. Cyr of Philadelphia-based Harvey, Pennington, Cabot, Griffith & Renneisen represented SCCMC.

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