Daniel E. Cummins. Daniel E. Cummins.

Recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions provide evidence that the pendulum is shifting toward a more liberal, plaintiff-oriented bent that was anticipated with the still-recent election of additional justices to the court to join those other justices on the court of the same bent.

This movement of the pendulum is perhaps most evident in two cases in which the court overturned years of jurisprudence and expanded the potential liability of governmental entities in personal injury matters.

A New Guide to Guide Rail Liability

In the case of Cagey v. PennDOT, No. 36 WAP 2016 (Pa. Feb. 21, 2018) (Maj. Op. by Donohue, J.)(Saylor, C.J., Concurring) (Wecht, J., Concurring), handed down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the court expressly overruled the long-followed 12-year-old Commonwealth Court decision in Fagan v. PennDOT, 946 A.2d 1123 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006), and its progeny, and held that PennDOT is only immune when it fails to install a guide rail.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court otherwise held in the Cagey case that when PennDOT has previously installed a guide rail, sovereign immunity is waived if the agency’s negligent installation and design created a dangerous condition that causes or contributes to an accident.

Although there are two concurring opinions in the Cagey decision, it appears that all of the justices agreed on the ultimate holding of the case.

In the Cagey case, the plaintiffs alleged personal injuries against PennDOT after they lost control of their vehicle under wintry conditions and crashed into a PennDOT erected guide rail that penetrated the side of the vehicle during the course of the accident. The plaintiffs alleged liability on the part of PennDOT with respect to the placement of the guide rail and the fact that the guide rail was allegedly not crashworthy.

With this reversal of many years of legal authority that protected PennDOT from liability pertaining to guide rail claims, it is expected that there will be a dramatic increase in litigation for the government in defending accidents that involved contact by a vehicle with a guide rail.

In another decision from earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court kept the pendulum shifting with another plaintiff-friendly decision.

30 Years of Precedent Obliterated

In a monumental reversal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned 30 years of precedent by holding that the involuntary movement of a vehicle does not constitute the operation of a motor vehicle for purposes of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity under 42 Pa. C.S.A. Section 8542(b)(1). In the case of Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, No. 119 MAP 2016 (Pa. Aug. 21, 2018 Mundy, J.) (Justices Todd, Dougherty, and Wecht joined in the majority Opinion) (Baer, J., concurring) (Saylor, dissenting, J.), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth Court, which had relied upon that 30 years of precedent, erred in its application of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity.

In Balentine, the plaintiff’s decedent was a contractor hired to rehabilitate a section of a water distribution system at a location. At the time of the accident, the decedent was working just off to the side of a two-lane road. The decedent was inside a ditch located on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb when an inspector drove up to the work site and parked his vehicle, with the engine running, approximately 10 to 15 feet from the ditch.

A few moments later, a vehicle operated by a third person struck the inspector’s parked vehicle, causing it to be propelled forward. The parked vehicle struck the decedent as he stood in the ditch, drug him out and pinned him under the vehicle when it came to a stop. The decedent sustained fatal injuries.

The decedent’s estate filed a lawsuit against various defendants. Certain governmental defendants obtained summary judgment from the lower court under an argument that neither the motor vehicle exception nor the traffic control device exception to governmental immunity set forth in the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applied. On appeal, a divided panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Relying upon the fact that the vehicle at issue was parked at the time of the accident, the majority in the Commonwealth Court considered itself “constrained” by the then-existing precedent to conclude as a matter of law that that vehicle was no longer in “operation” when the accident occurred. As such, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the involuntary movement of that vehicle can constitute an operation of that vehicle for purposes of the motor vehicle exceptions to governmental immunity.

Further up on the appellate ladder, the majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed the law behind the Tort Claims Act and held that movement of a vehicle, whether voluntary or involuntary, is not required by the statutory language of the vehicle liability exception in order for that exception to apply.

As such, the Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the lower courts and remanded the case back to the trial court. As stated, in writing this opinion, the court blew up 30 years of precedent on the issue with keystrokes on a computer.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Balentine confirmed that the word “operation” was not defined in the Tort Claims Act. As such, the Supreme Court turned to Black’s Law Dictionary and prior Pennsylvania case law addressing the proper definition of that term in this context. The majority emphasized that the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity only referred to operation, and not to motion when describing the parameters of this exception.

With its ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the long-standing precedent on this particular issue, including numerous prior decisions where the immunity was held to apply in accidents involving vehicles that are stopped or parked.  That is no longer the law under this decision.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled instead that “[w]here a government vehicle obstructs a roadway, in whole or in part, we can assume, absent evidence to the contrary, that a government agent operated the vehicle to arrive at that position.”

More specifically with respect to the Balentine case, the court found that, if the plaintiff established that the decedent’s injury was caused by an illegally parked government vehicle, but the movement of the vehicle itself did not cause the injury, the government could not avoid liability simply because the government vehicle was not “in motion” at the time of the injury.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the definition of an operation of a vehicle that was previously enunciated by Justice Sandra Newman in her Dissenting Opinion in the prior case of Warrick v. Pro Cor Ambulance, 739 A.2d 127, 129 (Pa. 1999) (Newman, J. dissenting).

Justice Newman recognized in that dissenting opinion that the 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.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Balentine adopted Justice Newman’s definition, and found that definition to represent a reasonable standard that comports with the intent of the legislature behind the Tort Claims Act and avoids what the current majority of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices on this issue deemed to be illogical results over the past 30 years of precedent that flowed from the prior emphasis on the need for motion in the previous cases.

What Else May be Taken Out?

The current members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have made it clear in no uncertain terms that they are not afraid to reverse long-standing precedent where they deem that to be warranted under the current times.

It remains to be seen how this court may address other important areas of civil litigation law that work their way up the appellate ladder to its courtroom for review. With continually emerging issues in post-Koken auto accident litigation and the continuing debate over proper standards for Pennsylvania products liability litigation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review of its cases is sure to remain interesting to both the bench and the bar.

Daniel E. Cummins is a partner with the Scranton law firm of Foley, Comerford & Cummins. He focuses his practice on the defense of auto accident, premises liability and products liability matters.  His Tort Talk Blog can be viewed at www.TortTalk.com.