Pennsylvania Court Affirms Judgment in Favor of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Because Plaintiff’s Claim of Injury When Running to Bus was Barred by Sovereign Immunity
In a recent lawsuit, Lancelot Robertson, the plaintiff, sued the Port Authority of Allegheny County after he was injured while running toward a Port Authority bus. While running to catch a Port Authority bus, Mr. Robertson tripped over a sandbag in a construction area, his hands hit the side of the bus, and he fell backwards. Mr. Robertson was taken to the emergency room at the hospital, where he was examined and released after undergoing a head examination.
Mr. Robertson, acting pro se, brought a lawsuit against the Port Authority, alleging the bus driver had operated the bus so that it collided with his body. He sought damages for back pain and headaches allegedly caused by his fall. In response, the Port Authority pleaded sovereign immunity. Mr. Robertson’s claim was that the driver negligently stopped the bus to let on passengers in the construction zone, rather than the designated bus stop.
The trial court held a hearing on the motion in limine to preclude Mr. Robertson from asserting his claim because it was barred by sovereign immunity and granted the motion. It then granted a motion for summary judgment and dismissed the action on the ground that sovereign immunity barred the action. Mr. Robertson appealed, alleging that summary judgment should not have been granted when the motion was made on the day of trial, and he had a valid negligence claim against the Port Authority.
The appellate court stated that the issue was whether Mr. Robertson had a full and fair opportunity to respond to the summary judgment motion. The lower court had provided ample notice and opportunity for Mr. Robertson to oppose the Port Authority’s motion for summary judgment. He also had over a week’s notice before trial of the sovereign immunity issue and the facts on which the summary judgment was based. The appellate court held the lower court did not err in ruling on the summary judgment motion and granting summary judgment on the day of trial.
Regarding sovereign immunity, the court stated the rule that agencies of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are immune from personal injury lawsuits except for those that are permitted by a statutory waiver of sovereign immunity. The Port Authority is a Commonwealth agency that is protected by sovereign immunity, subject to a limited waiver of immunity when two requirements are met as set forth under Section 8522 of the Judicial Code. First, the agency’s act that injured the plaintiff must be a negligent act, one for which damages would be recovered against a non-government defendant. Second, the agency’s negligent act must fall within one of nine exceptions set forth in Section 8522 (b) of the Judicial Code.
Here, the court stated the one relevant exception would be the motor vehicle exception, which waives immunity when an agency causes damages through negligent acts in operating a motor vehicle in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party. But the court stated that the fact Mr. Savoy alleged the driver was negligent was not sufficient to bring an action within this exception. The waiver of immunity applies when claims arise from negligence in the “operation” of a vehicle.
The appellate court stated that a driver’s decision regarding where to stop a vehicle or let on passengers does not involve the “operation” of the vehicle under the Judicial Code. Mr. Savoy alleged that the Port Authority driver picked up and discharged passengers in a construction zone as opposed to the designated bus stop. The court stated that is a claim that does not fall within the motor vehicle exception, and it is barred by sovereign immunity as a matter of law.
The motor vehicle exception, the court stated, does not apply to injuries simply because they took place while a Commonwealth agency vehicle was moving. Therefore, the fact that the bus was in motion when Mr. Savoy fell and was injured did not bring his claim under the motor vehicle exception. Mr. Savoy had not claimed the bus was negligently driven, nor did he claim the bus ran into him.
The court concluded that Mr. Savoy received a full and fair opportunity to oppose the Port Authority’s summary judgment motion, and Mr. Savoy’s claim was barred by sovereign immunity. The court affirmed the judgment in favor of the Port Authority.