140 A.3d 69 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2016), 1859 C.D. 2015, Balentine v. Chester Water Authority

Docket Nº:1859 C.D. 2015
Citation:140 A.3d 69
Opinion Judge:ANNE E. COVEY, Judge
Party Name:Victoria Balentine, Individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of Edwin Omar Medina-Flores, deceased, Appellant v. Chester Water Authority, Wyatt A. Roland, Michael W. Roland and Charles Matthews
Attorney:Michael D. Shaffer, Philadelphia, for appellant. Scott C. Gottel, Media, for appellees Chester Water Authority and Charles Matthews.
Judge Panel:BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge. ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, SENIOR JUDGE
Case Date:June 03, 2016
Court:Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
 
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140 A.3d 69 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2016)

Victoria Balentine, Individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of Edwin Omar Medina-Flores, deceased, Appellant

v.

Chester Water Authority, Wyatt A. Roland, Michael W. Roland and Charles Matthews

No. 1859 C.D. 2015

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 3, 2016

Argued May 13, 2016

Appealed from No. 13-011179. Common Pleas Court of the County of Delaware. Judge Angelos, J.

Michael D. Shaffer, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Scott C. Gottel, Media, for appellees Chester Water Authority and Charles Matthews.

BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge.

OPINION

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ANNE E. COVEY, Judge

Victoria Balentine, individually and as administratrix of the estate of Edwin Omar Medina-Flores (Flores), deceased (Balentine), appeals from the Delaware County Common Pleas Court's (trial court) February 5, 2015 order granting the Chester Water Authority's (CWA) and Charles

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Mathues'1 (Mathues) (collectively, Authority) summary judgment motion (Motion), and dismissing all claims against the Authority. There are two issues before the Court: (1) whether the trial court erred by finding that the motor vehicle exception to the act commonly known as the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (Tort Claims Act)[2] did not apply; and (2) whether the trial court erred by finding that the traffic control device exception to the Tort Claims Act did not apply.

On November 8, 2013, Balentine filed a complaint against the Authority, Michael Roland and Wyatt A. Roland (Roland) (collectively, Rolands), alleging that Mathues negligently parked a CWA truck which Roland carelessly, negligently and recklessly struck causing the CWA truck to pin Flores, resulting in his death.3 On December 16, 2014, the Authority filed the Motion asserting immunity from liability under the Tort Claims Act. On January 15, 2015, Balentine responded that her claims fall within exceptions to governmental immunity. The trial court held a hearing on February 4, 2015 and, on February 5, 2015, the trial court granted the Authority's Motion and dismissed all claims against it.4 On September 25, 2015, Balentine appealed to this Court.5

Initially, the Tort Claims Act provides: " Except as otherwise provided in this subchapter, no local agency shall be 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 or any other person." 42 Pa.C.S. § 8541. The relevant exceptions to governmental immunity are provided in Section 8542 of the Tort Claims Act:

(a) Liability imposed.--A local agency shall be liable for damages on account of an injury to a person or property within the limits set forth in this subchapter if both of the following conditions are satisfied and the injury occurs as a result of one of the acts set forth in subsection (b):

(1) The damages would be recoverable under common law or a statute creating a cause of action if the injury were caused by a person not having available a defense under [S]ection 8541 [of the

Page 72 Tort Claims Act] (relating to governmental immunity generally) or [S]ection 8546 [of the Tort Claims Act] (relating to defense of official immunity); and

(2) The injury was caused by the negligent acts of the local agency or an employee thereof acting within the scope of his office or duties with respect to one of the categories listed in subsection (b). As used in this paragraph, 'negligent acts' shall not include acts or conduct which constitutes a crime, actual fraud, actual malice or willful misconduct.

(b) Acts which may impose liability.--The following acts by a local agency or any of its employees may result in the imposition of liability on a local agency:

(1) Vehicle liability.--The operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the local agency . . . . As used in this paragraph, 'motor vehicle' means any vehicle which is self-propelled and any attachment thereto, including vehicles operated by rail, through water or in the air.

. . . .

(4) Trees, traffic controls and street lighting.--A dangerous condition of trees, traffic signs, lights or other traffic controls, street lights or street lighting systems under the care, custody or control of the local agency, except that the claimant to recover must establish that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred and that the local agency had actual notice or could reasonably be charged with notice under the circumstances of the dangerous condition at a sufficient time prior to the event to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8542 (text emphasis added). " In accordance with the General Assembly's expressed intent to insulate local agencies from tort liabilities, the statutory language of the exceptions to governmental immunity contained in Subsection 8542(b) of the Tort Claims Act must be construed narrowly; immunity remains the rule." Gale v. City of Phila., 86 A.3d 318, 320 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2014).

Balentine first argues that the trial court erred by determining that the motor vehicle exception to the Tort Claims Act did not apply. Specifically, the trial court determined that the exception requires that the Authority's negligence, rather than involuntary movement of the government vehicle by a third party, cause the subject vehicle's movement and the resulting injuries. Because no Pennsylvania case law addresses whether involuntary movement of a vehicle constitutes operation for purposes of the governmental immunity exception, this is a matter of first impression.

Balentine cites to Cacchione v. Wieczorek, 674 A.2d 773 (Pa.Cmwlth. 1996); Sonnenberg v. Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority, 137 Pa.Cmwlth. 533, 586 A.2d 1026 (Pa.Cmwlth. 1991); and Mickle v. City of Philadelphia, 550 Pa. 539, 707 A.2d 1124 (Pa. 1998), to support her position that a stopped vehicle can still be considered in " operation" for purposes of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity. The Authority, however, cites to Love v. City of Philadelphia, 518 Pa. 370, 543 A.2d 531 (Pa. 1988); Pennsylvania State...

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