The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has broken with previous appellate precedent, finding that a government vehicle did not need to be in motion, either voluntarily or involuntarily, when it allegedly caused an injury in order to be considered in ”operation” for the purposes of triggering the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity.
In Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, the high court reversed the dismissal of an action brought by a contractor’s widow, plaintiff Victoria Balentine, who sued Chester Water Authority after one of its parked vehicles was struck from behind and crashed into her husband, Edwin Omar Medina-Flores, killing him.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy and was joined by Justices Kevin Dougherty and David Wecht. Wecht and Justice Max Baer filed concurring opinions while Chief Justice Thomas Saylor wrote a dissenting opinion.
“A CWA employee operated a CWA vehicle and parked it in the roadway. The CWA vehicle was hit from behind by another vehicle as it sat on the roadway, and the CWA vehicle struck Medina-Flores fatally injuring him,” Mundy said, recounting the events of the accident. “Balentine has pled facts sufficient to establish a prima facie cause of action in negligence based on acts that constitute the operation of a vehicle. Accordingly, the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity applies in this case.”
Saylor took issue with what he felt was the majority’s disregard for past precedent and its opinion that such jurisprudence was “untethered to the narrow question addressed,” specifically relating to the high court’s 1988 ruling in Love v. City of Philadelphia. In that case, a $375,000 verdict for an elderly woman who fell out of a van was reversed based on the Supreme Court’s determination that “operation” was defined as “‘movement of the vehicle under the direction of an operator.’”
“I fail to see how trial courts and intermediate courts are to differentiate between controlling precedent and dicta if the definition of a term that is essential to the resolution of a case is treated as dictum,” Saylor said in his dissent.
In a June 2016 ruling in Balentine, Judge Anne Covey, writing for a split Commonwealth Court, said, “Involuntary movement of a vehicle does not include ‘operation’ for purposes of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity.”
The act says that “no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person,” but allows specific exceptions to governmental immunity. Among the exceptions are liability for “the operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the local agency” and for a dangerous condition created by traffic controls under the care or control of the agency, Covey said.
Balentine argued that the trial court wrongly determined that the motor vehicle exception requires that the CWA’s negligence, rather than involuntary movement of an agency vehicle, caused the injuries in order to make the agency liable.
The CWA’s truck was running and had its strobe light on at the time of the collision, but it was parked, Covey said. As such, the involuntary movement weighed in favor of the CWA, she said.
“There was no allegation that the CWA truck was not fully parked at the time, that the injury was caused by the voluntary movement of the truck’s parts or an attachment to the truck, or that there was any negligent maintenance or repair to the truck,” Covey said, declining the case law proposed by Balentine as weighing in her favor. “Because the CWA truck was parked at the time of the collision, we are constrained to conclude as a matter of law that it was no longer in operation when the accident occurred.”
In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Senior Judge Rochelle S. Friedman said she would have concluded that Charles Mathues’ vehicle was in operation at the time it struck and killed Medina-Flores, and therefore the exception to governmental immunity should have applied.
In the Supreme Court’s ruling, Mundy took aim at the Love court’s definition of operation.
“For 30 years, this definition has impeded the development of consistent and logical case law,” Mundy said. ”Where accidents occur involving vehicles that are stopped or parked, the courts have held that immunity applies. However, where the parked vehicle resumes movement … and where a moving part of a parked vehicle is active … the Commonwealth Court has held that the exception to immunity is triggered”
“For the General Assembly to have intended the abrogation of governmental immunity based on the random factor of motion is an absurd or unreasonable result,” Mundy added.
Instead, Mundy looked to former Justice Sandra Schultz Newman’s dissent in the 1999 case Warrick v. Pro Cor Ambulance for guidance.
“In her dissenting opinion in Warrick, Justice Newman recognized that operation of a vehicle ‘reflects a continuum of activity,’ which entails ‘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,’” Mundy said. ”This definition, which we adopt today, creates a reasonable standard that comports with the intent of the General Assembly and avoids the illogical results that have flowed from the emphasis on motion in Love and its progeny.”
Scott Gottel represents the CWA and said, “We are disappointed in the ruling and we believe it’s overturning 30 years of long-standing precedent … we will consider our options in continued litigation.”
Michael Shaffer of Shaffer & Gaier represents Balentine.
“It was a long battle for sure, I was certainly happy for the client that she’ll have her day in court, finally,” Shaffer said of the case. “I think the court did a good job of clearing up what were very confusing and contradictory rulings over the past 35 years as to what the motor vehicle exception was.”