Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, 082218 PASC, 119 MAP 2016

Docket Nº:119 MAP 2016
Opinion Judge:MUNDY JUSTICE.
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, Appellees
Judge Panel:SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ. Justices Todd, Dougherty and Wecht join the opinion. Justice Baer files a concurring opinion in which Justice Donohue joins. Justice Wecht files a concurring opinion in which Justice Todd joins. Chief Justice Saylor files a dissentin...
Case Date:August 22, 2018
Court:Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
 
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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, Appellees

No. 119 MAP 2016

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

August 22, 2018

ARGUED: September 13, 2017

Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court dated June 3, 2016 at No. 1859 CD 2015 Affirming the Order of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division, dated September 2, 2015 at No. 13-11179.

SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

OPINION

MUNDY JUSTICE.

We granted allowance of appeal in this matter to consider whether the Commonwealth Court erred in holding that the involuntary movement of a vehicle does not constitute operation of a motor vehicle for purposes of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(1). As explained herein, because we determine that movement of a vehicle, whether voluntary or involuntary, is not required by the statutory language of the vehicle liability exception, we reverse the order of the Commonwealth Court thereby allowing this matter to proceed in the trial court.

Appellant, Victoria Balentine, is the widow of Edwin Omar Medina-Flores, a contractor for Metra Industries (Metra), which was hired by the Chester Water Authority (CWA) to rehabilitate a section of its water distribution system. The project involved cleaning and lining water mains, including one located on Kerlin Street in Chester, Pennsylvania. On the afternoon of August 15, 2012, Medina-Flores was working on the 1200 block of Kerlin Street, a two-lane road that runs north to south, with no parking lanes on either lane of travel. Medina-Flores was inside a four-foot by four-foot ditch located on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the curb on the southbound side of the road, when Charles Mathues, 1 an inspector for CWA, approached the worksite in a southerly direction and parked his CWA vehicle, with the engine running, 10 to 15 feet from the ditch. Mathues Dep., 11/11/14, at 62-64. Mathues testified that 10 to 12 inches of his vehicle were located in the roadway. Id. at 62. Carlos Bonilla, a Metra foreman at the jobsite, testified that the CWA vehicle was 80 percent in the roadway. Bonilla Dep., 11/3/14, at 58. William Pugh, a Metra employee, testified that the CWA vehicle "was completely in the road." Pugh Dep., 11/3/14, at 57.

Mathues activated the four-way flashers and the amber strobe light on the roof of the vehicle, which he then exited. He walked to the front of the vehicle where he laid some blueprints on the hood. Mathues Dep., 11/11/14, at 64. Approximately five minutes later, a vehicle owned by Michael Roland and driven by Wyatt Roland struck the rear of the CWA vehicle, causing it to move forward. Mathues was rolled up onto the hood and thrown into the roadway. The right front bumper of the CWA vehicle then struck Medina-Flores as he stood in the ditch. The undercarriage dragged him out of the ditch, pinning Medina-Flores under the vehicle when it came to a stop. See Plaintiff's Response to Motion for Summary Judgment, 1/15/15, Exhibit D, Police Crash Reporting Form. Medina-Flores died as a result of the injuries he sustained. Mathues was also injured in the accident. Mathues Dep., 11/11/14, at 105-08.

On November 8, 2013, Balentine, individually and as administratrix of the Estate of Medina-Flores, filed a complaint against CWA, Mathues, Wyatt Roland and Michael Roland. CWA and Mathues filed a timely answer thereto, and on December 16, 2014, they filed a motion for summary judgment. On February 5, 2015, the trial court granted the motion and dismissed all claims against CWA and Mathues, having determined that neither the motor vehicle exception nor the traffic control device exception to governmental immunity set forth in the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (Tort Claims Act), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8541-8542, applied.

On September 2, 2015, Balentine dismissed the action against Michael Roland and Wyatt Roland, thereby making the February 5, 2015 order granting summary judgment appealable.2 See Pa.R.A.P. 341(b)(1) (a final order is one that "disposes of all claims and all parties.").

On appeal, a divided panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court. Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, 140 A.3d 69 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016). The majority recognized that "[b]ecause 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." Id. at 72. Relying on the fact that the CWA vehicle was parked at the time of the accident, the majority considered itself "constrained to conclude as a matter of law, that [the vehicle] was no longer in operation when the accident occurred." Id. at 74 (citations omitted). Therefore, the court concluded that involuntary movement of a vehicle does not constitute 'operation' for purposes of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity." Id. at 75. The Commonwealth Court also agreed with the trial court that the traffic control device exception to the Tort Claims Act did not apply.

Senior Judge Friedman filed a concurring and dissenting opinion. Although Judge Friedman agreed that the traffic device exception did not apply, she concluded that the CWA vehicle was in operation at the time it struck and killed Medina-Flores. In reaching this conclusion, Judge Friedman distinguished the cases relied upon by the majority. Judge Friedman maintained that the majority erred by distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary movement of a vehicle because "the statute does not qualify the word 'operation.'" Id. at 77.

We granted discretionary review to consider whether the Commonwealth Court erred in affirming the grant of summary judgment and holding that the involuntary movement of a vehicle does not constitute operation of a motor vehicle for purposes of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity.3 Because this presents a pure question of law, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. Shinal v.Toms, 162 A.3d 429, 441 (Pa. 2017).

Section 8541 of the Tort Claims Act sets forth the following general principle: "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. Section 8542 sets forth the following pertinent exception:

§ 8542. Exceptions to governmental immunity

(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 section 8541 (relating to governmental immunity generally) or section 8546 (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, provided that the local agency shall not be liable to any plaintiff that claims liability under this subsection if the plaintiff was, during the course of the alleged negligence, in flight or fleeing apprehension or resisting arrest by a police officer or knowingly aided a group, one or more of whose members were in flight or fleeing apprehension or resisting arrest by a police officer. 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.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(1).

The parties each assert that the appellate precedent of this Commonwealth supports their position. With respect to the pertinent issue in this case, both parties rely, in part, on Love v. City of Philadelphia, 543 A.2d 531 (Pa. 1988). In Love, a 73-year-old woman who was blind in one eye and visually impaired in the other, would receive transportation to...

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