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Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Allows Injured Woman to Pursue Suit Against School District

If you sustain an injury on Pennsylvania public property or at the hands of a governmental employee, there is a possibility that the governmental entity would be free from responsibility under the Sovereign Immunity Act.  Derived from common law, statutory sovereign immunity was enacted in order to protect governmental entities from legal liability so that they may be able to proceed with government business.  However, Pennsylvania law 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8522 carves out exceptions for immunity, including vehicle liability, medical professional liability, Commonwealth real estate (including sidewalks), and potholes.  If an injury occurs under any of the exceptions listed in the statute, the injured person may pursue recourse through civil action.

It is not always straightforward when determining whether or not an exception to the Sovereign Immunity Act applies to an injury. In Taylor v. Northeast Bradford School District, a woman obtained her injury at a band concert held in a public school gymnasium.  The gym was open until everyone found their seats. Partitions were then closed to improve the acoustics.  These were left in place during intermission, and attendees used the partition doors that would open up to other parts of the gym.  The door openings in the partition did not go all the way to the floor. A foot of the partition remained so that anyone crossing the opening had to step over this partition when accessing a different part of the gym.  The injured woman, wishing to purchase raffle tickets, did not clear the partition and fell onto her knees and face, breaking two front teeth and cutting and bruising her face.

The injured woman testified that, while she had been to concerts previously, she could not remember whether she used the “pocket door” or not, and she stated that she was just following others out.  She did not see any posted signs warning of the door.  The woman filed suit against the school district, which moved for summary judgment, claiming sovereign immunity.  The school district denied the partition was property under its care and control.  The injured woman argued that the partition and the door were a “fixture” on the government property, falling under the real estate exception.  The district court disagreed with the injured woman and granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment.

Part of the assessment on appeal was whether the partition was personalty (moveable property) or realty under the law, and if the partition was realty, whether the partition created a dangerous condition that stemmed from the care, custody, and control of the real property.  The trial court had determined that the partition was personalty and did not fall under the exception.  The Commonwealth Court reviewed the three classifications carved out by case law to consider. In addition to dividing property between personalty and realty, certain items that were once moveable could become realty, if those items had become such a part of the property that they would be hazardous or extremely difficult to remove.  The Court of Appeals did not feel the trial court had any evidence to base its assignation of personalty to these items, and it reversed and remanded the decision back to the trial court for a full determination. 

This Commonwealth Court case shows the importance of experienced counsel on an injured person’s side.  The Pennsylvania premises liability attorneys at Needle Law Firm have the legal knowledge necessary to seek a successful outcome.  To speak with one of our lawyers today, contact our office at 570-344-1266

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