Liability • Sovereign Immunity • Tort Claims Act • Vehicle Exception • “Operation”

Gale v. City of Philadelphia, PICS Case No. 14-0340 (Pa. Commw. March 4, 2014) Colins, S.J. (8 pages).

Appellant failed to allege facts triggering liability under the vehicle exception to governmental immunity, where she stated that her injuries were caused by a nonemployee of police department who commandeered a police cruiser and hit her vehicle from behind. Judgment affirmed.

Jose Garriya was arrested, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police cruiser. Inexplicably, Garriya managed to commandeer the vehicle and struck appellant’s vehicle from behind. As a result of the collision, appellant suffered serious injury.

Appellant sued city, alleging it was responsible for Garriya’s negligent operation of the police cruiser. City responded that it was immune from liability. The trial court dismissed the action, concluding that city was immune from suit because appellant’s cause of action did not fall within one of the enumerated exceptions to governmental immunity contained in the Tort Claims Act.

On appeal, appellant argued that the trial court erred in concluding city is immune from suit, because the cause of action falls within the vehicle exception to governmental immunity. Appellant contended that both Garriya and the vehicle were in the custody and control of police, and that the actions of police officers were part of a continuous sequence of events that caused the operation of the vehicle by Garriya. City contended that the vehicle exception to governmental immunity only applies where the vehicle is being operated by a local agency employee authorized to operate the vehicle, not to the failure of a local agency employee to control a vehicle or the operator of a vehicle. The Commonwealth Court affirmed.

The vehicle exception to governmental immunity permits liability where a plaintiff’s injury is due to”[t]he operation of any motor vehicle in possession or control of the local agency….” 42 Pa.C.S. §8542(b)(1). “Operation” in this context means “to actually put in motion,” and does not include “preparing to operate a vehicle, or acts taken at the cessation of operating a vehicle.” Love v. Philadelphia, 543 A.2d 531, 533 (Pa. 1988).

The vehicle exception applies only where the agent of the local agency actually operates the vehicle in question. In each of the cases cited by city and appellant, liability depended upon operation and not control. Appellant didnot allege that anyone other than Garriya was operating the vehicle. Instead, appellant’s claim depended upon whether or not the police had control of both Garriya and the police cruiser. The language of the statute and case law make clear, however, that where an employee of a local agency has not acted by putting a vehicle in motion, liability under the vehicle exception to governmental immunity will not attach. From the face of appellant’s complaint, it was clear she was alleging that her injuries arose from police failure to prevent Garriya from operating the vehicle and not from their own operation of a vehicle. Accordingly, appellant failed to allege facts that trigger liability under the vehicle exception to governmental immunity.