For the purposes of its parking operations, the Philadelphia Parking Authority is a local agency under the Tort Claims Act, the Commonwealth Court has ruled.
The Commonwealth Court made the unanimous en banc panel decision in Oliver v. Tropiano Transportation on Friday. The decision reverses a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas holding that the authority is a commonwealth agency governed by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.
President Judge Dan Pellegrini used the reasoning outlined in the state Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Blount v. Philadelphia Parking Authority to determine that the PPA should be considered a local agency in its duties relating to parking functions.
“The relevant inquiry in determining the authority’s status for purpose of tort immunity is ‘whether the entity was created by the state to perform a state function,’” Pellegrini said. “The authority is clearly a local agency in the context of this case.”
According to the opinion, plaintiff Geraldine Oliver said she fractured her foot as she stepped out of a bus that was providing shuttle services in a parking garage owned and operated by the PPA. Oliver alleged that the van had been improperly parked on an inclined portion of a ramp and that she stepped out onto a grooved portion of the ramp, which led to the injuries, Pellegrini said.
The PPA filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming it was a local agency, and therefore governed by the Tort Claims Act, which allows a real property exception to governmental immunity only if the injuries arise out of improper “care, custody or control of real property.” The Tort Claims Act also only allows recovery for pain and suffering damages in cases where there has been “permanent loss of bodily function, disfigurement or dismemberment.”
Oliver argued that the PPA was a commonwealth agency covered by sovereign immunity, which provides a real property exception for a “dangerous condition of” real estate and does not require the injuries to be permanent in order for a plaintiff to recover non-economic damages for pain and suffering.
To support its assertion, the plaintiff cited the Blount decision, in which the Supreme Court had held that the PPA was a commonwealth agency in regards to its taxicab regulation functions.
The trial court denied the PPA’s motion, and found the agency 50 percent liable for $30,000 worth of damages, Pellegrini said.
On appeal, Pellegrini said that a close reading of Blount showed that the Supreme Court intended the PPA to be considered a local agency in regards to its parking management duties.
In Blount, several taxicab drivers filed petitions challenging PPA regulations in the Commonwealth Court. The court determined that the PPA was a local agency and so it lacked original jurisdiction to hear the challenge.
In its decision to reverse the Commonwealth Court’s holding in Blount, the Supreme Court determined that the PPA is a commonwealth authority under the taxicab and limousine chapter of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, Title 53.
However, the high court also said that the PPA serves local functions, “such as the management of on- and off-street parking in Philadelphia.” The court further noted that “disputes arising out of these local operations are properly relegated to the original jurisdiction of the” trial court.
Pellegrini said that the Commonwealth Court has since continued to reiterate the distinction between the PPA’s parking functions and its regulation of the taxicab industry.
“The authority is a unique agency that functions as a local agency with respect to parking matters, but as a commonwealth agency in matters involving taxicabs,” Pellegrini said, quoting the court’s 2011 decision in Sule v. PPA.
Dennis Weldon, attorney for the PPA, said that, while the decision maintains consistency with previous rulings, it is an important issue for the court to address.
Over the past few years, the PPA has started handling more duties outside of city parking, such as overseeing the red-light cameras, airport parking and vehicle impounding following police stops, he said. This decision will help to solidify the holding that the PPA is a local authority in all aspects outside of its taxicab regulation duties, he said.
“It helps to settle an issue that’s been percolating in Philadelphia regarding what the authority is for the application of torts and sovereign immunity,” he said, adding that there are a dozen cases circulating in the courts at any given time related to these issues. “A 7-0 en banc decision should put to rest some of the questions that arbitration panels and Philadelphia Common Pleas Court have.”
Moira L. Hahn of the Law Office of Paul H. Kahn, who represented Oliver, was not available for comment Friday afternoon.
Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.
(Copies of the 14-page opinion in Oliver v. Tropiano Transportation, PICS No. 13-3142, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •