Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruling Significantly Narrows the Scope of Governmental Immunity in Motor Vehicle Accidents

09.25.18

Pennsylvania's Governmental Immunity Statute provides that "no local agency shall be held liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof ..." unless the act falls under one of the enumerated exceptions. (42 Pa.C.S. § 8541).

One of the oft-applied exceptions is the "motor vehicle" exception, which provides that liability may be imputed onto a government agency for injuries resulting from "[t]he operation of any motor vehicle in the possession of control of the local agency..." 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(1). In other words, governmental immunity may not apply in accidents involving government vehicles.

However, for more than forty years, the Pennsylvania Courts have consistently ruled that, in order for the "motor vehicle exception" to apply, the government vehicle must be "in operation," which, to the Pennsylvania Courts, meant that the vehicle had to be in motion. This was bedrock law in the Commonwealth for decades, and though the rule sometimes resulted in absurd results, the Courts were consistent in their interpretation of the rule.

All of this recently changed with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's recent (August 21, 2018) ruling in Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, 2018 Pa. LEXIS 4299, where the Court ruled that the government vehicle need not be "in motion" in order to be considered "in operation" for the exception to apply.

In Balentine, the appellant filed suit against a governmental utility agency for negligently causing the death of her husband, a utility company worker. The decedent was standing in a ditch alongside a road while performing a job-related function when a co-worker parked a government-owned truck near the ditch. Shortly thereafter, a third-party ran into the rear of the parked truck and pushed it into the ditch where the decedent was working. The decedent was killed and his Estate filed suit against the utility company and others. The utility company moved to dismiss the claims against it pursuant to long-standing Pennsylvania jurisprudence which, as noted, required the government vehicle to be "in motion" in order for the exception to apply.

Specifically, the utility company argued that because its vehicle was not in motion at the time it was struck from behind, (and, therefore, not in "operation" for purposes of 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(1)), the motor vehicle exception to sovereign immunity was inapplicable. The trial court granted summary judgment, and the Commonwealth Court affirmed. The Commonwealth Court agreed that "the involuntary movement of a vehicle does not constitute 'operation' for purposes of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity." In other words, the exception did not apply because the "motion" of the government vehicle was involuntary (i.e., its movement was the result of being pushed by the other vehicle).

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed and held that the term "operation" does not require actual motion of a vehicle. The Supreme Court stated that if the legislature had such intent, it would have clearly stated so when drafting the statute. The Court issued a revised definition of "operation" for purposes of 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(1), stating that "operation" is "a continuum of activity...which entails a series of decisions and actions, taken together, which transport the individual from one place to another."

Comment: With its ruling in Balentine, the Supreme Court upended the widely held belief that a vehicle must be in motion for the vehicle exception under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(1) to apply. The impact of this ruling cannot be overstated. Under the revised definition of "operation," a governmental employee's decision to park or stop a vehicle subsequently involved in an accident could conceivably be considered "operation". There is no longer a requirement that the vehicle be moving when the accident occurs. The ruling should make it easier for plaintiffs to proceed against government entities in motor vehicle accidents as it significantly narrows the applicability of the exception. Given this, government entities should be aware that more of these motor vehicle claims will likely proceed through litigation. Moreover, they should be reviewing their policies and procedures regarding where, when and how their employees operate gove rnment owned vehicles, or even if such vehicles should be used to perform certain services in the first place.

For more information, please contact James A. Wescoe at jwescoe@wglaw.com or 267.765.4123 or Judy S. Moon at jmoon@wglaw.com or 267.765.4131.

Media Contacts

Jennifer R. Williams 
215.972.7917
jwilliams@wglaw.com

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