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Sovereign Immunity in Pennsylvania

In a recent case, a personal injury plaintiff appealed after a trial court granted the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) motion for summary judgment. The accident arose when she was a passenger on a SEPTA bus and while trying to step off, fell and hurt her head, neck and more. She sued, alleging SEPTA’s negligence was the cause her accident.

SEPTA answered the complaint and the case was submitted to arbitration. A panel of arbitrators ruled against the plaintiff. The plaintiff appealed the arbitration award to the trial court. A couple of months later SEPTA filed a motion for summary judgment against the plaintiff, arguing her claim didn’t fall within an exception to its statutory sovereign immunity. The plaintiff opposed, arguing that SEPTA was not a Commonwealth agency and was therefore not covered by Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act.

The plaintiff argued her negligence claim fell within the exception of care, custody and control of personal property under section 8522(b)(3) of the Sovereign Immunity Act. SEPTA replied that it was a state party and entitled immunity. The trial court agreed with SEPTA, dismissing the plaintiff’s suit. She appealed to the Superior Court, which transferred the appeal to the Commonwealth Court.

The plaintiff argued that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously ruled that SEPTA was not an arm of the Commonwealth under the Eleventh Amendment. She argued that SEPTA was not permitted to argue otherwise. Among other things, she also argued that based on SEPTA’s inefficiency and net worth it didn’t deserve sovereign immunity. SEPTA responded the case on which the plaintiff relied involved Eleventh Amendment immunity, not state statutory immunity. It also argued the plaintiff didn’t have any evidence to show that SEPTA didn’t deserve sovereign immunity. A number of cases had found it to be a Commonwealth party entitled to sovereign immunity. The appellate agreed that Eleventh Amendment immunity was distinct from state statutory immunity and SEPTA was not denied immunity protection under the state law.

Next, the plaintiff argued that her claim came within the vehicle liability exception to the Sovereign Immunity Act and not within the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s holding. Even a stopped bus where the motor was running and the driver’s hands were holding the wheel should be considered “in operation.”

SEPTA argued the plaintiff did not raise the vehicle liability exception to sovereign immunity at the trial level. It also argued that there was no dispute that her injuries were sustained when she got off the stopped bus. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had ruled that when bus is stopped during an injury, the vehicle liability exception does not apply.

The appellate court agreed that a plaintiff must raise an issue at the trial level to have the issue reviewed. In this case, the plaintiff had noted she could not assert errors with great particularity in connection with the trial court’s order because the order didn’t identify why it was making certain rulings. The appellate court found she waived the issues related to the vehicle liability exception, but would not have applied.

In her final argument, the plaintiff had argued that if the vehicle liability exception didn’t apply, the stationary bus should be considered the defendant’s personal property. She argued that her fall should b treated as a slip and fall under the personal property exception to the Sovereign Immunity Act. SEPTA responded the bus was not personal property, nor was it responsible for her injury. Ice, rather than the bus itself, caused her to fall. The trial court agreed with SEPTA and affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

Although the plaintiffs in this case did not recover, an experienced Pennsylvania personal injury attorney can evaluate the facts of your particular case if you are injured on somebody else’s property and bring a lawsuit on your behalf if appropriate. Contact the attorneys at Needle Law Firm at 570-344-1266 or via our online form for a free consultation.

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