Simmons v. Township of Moon

Decision Date18 December 1991
Citation144 Pa.Cmwlth. 198,601 A.2d 425
PartiesGreta SIMMONS, Administratrix of the Estate of Anthony Lacy, Deceased, Appellant, v. TOWNSHIP OF MOON, a Municipal Corporation; County of Allegheny; Allegheny County Police Department; Elmer Banks, an Individual; John Skonicki, an Individual and Robert Downey, an Individual, Appellees.
CourtPennsylvania Commonwealth Court

John E. Nickoloff, for appellant.

Pamela G. Cochenour, for appellees.

Before PELLEGRINI and BYER, JJ., and NARICK, Senior Judge.

PELLEGRINI, Judge.

Greta Simmons (Simmons), Administratrix of the Estate of her son, Anthony Lacy (decedent), deceased, appeals from an Order of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas (trial court) which granted the defendants' County of Allegheny (County), Allegheny County Police Department (County Police), Detective John Skonicki (County Detective Skonicki) and Detective Robert Downey's (County Detective Downey) Preliminary Objections in the nature of a demurrer and dismissed Simmons' Complaint against these defendants claiming negligence, false arrest, and civil rights violations caused the death of her son.

The facts that give rise to this cause of action occurred on March 12, 1989. On that date, according to Simmons' Complaint, she and her husband were requested to come to the Moon Township Police Station (Station) to be with her son, the deceased, who was being questioned by law enforcement authorities about a certain crime that had allegedly been committed in the Township of Moon. Present at the Station were Moon Township (Township) Detective Elmer Banks (Township Detective Banks) and County Detectives Skonicki and Downey.

According to Simmons' Complaint, the Detectives read the decedent his constitutional "Miranda" rights and began accusatorial questioning, including asserting their personal belief that decedent was guilty of the alleged crime. Simmons alleges that her son asserted his right to counsel but that County Detective Skonicki continued to press decedent for a statement. Simmons further alleges that at that time, as the Detectives admitted at the Open Inquest, no probable cause existed to arrest decedent for the crime. 1 Simmons asserts that the County Detectives then resorted to constitutionally impermissible tactics designed to pressure decedent into an inculpatory statement.

Simmons' Complaint further alleges that at this time, the Detectives told both the decedent and Simmons and her husband that the trial judge would be lenient if decedent gave a statement and that a search warrant was a formality, when in reality no probable cause existed for such a warrant. At this time, the Complaint asserts, County Detective Downey took decedent, who was extremely nervous, upset and distraught, to an isolated room while County Detective Skonicki and Township Detective Banks took Simmons and her husband to another room.

According to the Complaint, it was County Detective Downey's job to make sure her son did not escape, thus placing him under arrest without probable cause. Presumedly, County Detective Downey left the room in which he was holding the decedent at which time, decedent shot himself in the head with Township Detective Banks' .357 Caliber Magnum Service Revolver which had been left in an unlocked desk drawer in the room.

Simmons filed an action against the Township, the County, the County Police, Township Detective Banks, and County Detectives Skonicki and Downey seeking damages for the death of her son. The Complaint sought damages under Wrongful Death and Survival for false arrest and negligence, and under Sections 1983 and 1985 of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, for violations of decedent's civil rights. Preliminary Objections (P.O.'s) were filed by both the Township and Township Detective Banks and the County, the County Police and County Detectives Skonicki and Downey.

On November 26, 1990, the trial court dismissed the P.O.'s of the Township and Township Detective Banks, requiring only that Simmons amend paragraphs 17, 18 and 19 of her Complaint, which she subsequently did by filing an Amended Complaint. The trial court, however, sustained the P.O.'s of the County, the County Police and County Detectives Skonicki and Downey and dismissed Simmons' Complaint against these defendants. Simmons filed a Motion for Reconsideration which was granted by the trial court. However, the trial court subsequently affirmed its prior Order sustaining the P.O.'s on December 14, 1990. Simmons now appeals.

In sustaining the P.O.'s of the County Agencies and the two County Detectives, the trial court dismissed Simmons' cause of action for false arrest and negligence, holding that the defendants are immune from prosecution pursuant to Sections 8541 and 8545 of the Judicial Code, commonly referred to as the Political Subdivision Torts Claims Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8541, 8545. The trial court found that neither false arrest nor negligence fell within one of the eight enumerated exceptions to immunity provided in Section 8542, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542.

The trial court further found that the Section 1983 cause of action must fail because Simmons failed to plead specific acts of the defendants which gave rise to constitutional deprivations. The trial court held that since the defendants were being treated as a single entity, there was no way of knowing what conduct is attributed to them as individuals. The trial court concluded that the lack of factual specificity required that the cause of action be dismissed. The trial court likewise found Simmons' Section 1985 action must fail for the same reasons including the failure to specify the protected class of which decedent was a member.

Simmons contends that her Complaint contains sufficient averments to survive the defendants' P.O.'s. Simmons argues that the Complaint provides a sufficient basis for a Wrongful Death and Survival action based on negligence and false arrest as well as Section 1983 and 1985 causes of action. Simmons alleges that these defendants, acting in concert, engaged in constitutionally impermissible interrogation techniques which caused decedent undue and overwhelming pressure, which, together with the negligence of Detective Banks in leaving his revolver in a desk, resulted in decedent's suicide. Simmons further argues that the municipal defendants knew or should have known that such conduct existed yet failed to properly train the individual defendants to refrain from such conduct. Simmons also contends that if the Complaint is insufficient, she should be allowed to amend it in the fashion that was permitted with respect to the P.O.'s of the Township and Township Detective Banks.

A preliminary objection in the nature of a demurrer tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Local No. 163, I. Union v. Watkins, 417 Pa. 120, 207 A.2d 776 (1965). In Wicks v. Milzoco Builders, Inc., 503 Pa. 614, 623-624, 470 A.2d 86, 91 (1983), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated:

A demurrer admits every well-plead material fact set forth in the pleadings to which it is addressed as well as all inferences reasonably deducible therefrom, but not conclusions of law. In order to sustain the demurrer, it is essential that plaintiff's complaint indicate on its face that his claim cannot be sustained, and the law will not permit recovery. If there is any doubt, this should be resolved in favor of overruling the demurrer. (Citations omitted.) (Emphasis added.)

We will review the trial court's basis for sustaining the defendants' P.O.'s.

A. Governmental and Official Immunity

The trial court's basis for dismissing the cause of actions based on negligence and false arrest was governmental and official immunity. Local agencies are provided with governmental immunity under Section 8541 of the Judicial Code which provides that a local agency shall not 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 unless otherwise provided for in the subchapter. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8541. Section 8542(a) of the Judicial Code provides two conditions that must be met before liability is imposed: the damages must be those which would be recoverable at common law and the injury must be caused by the negligence of the local agency or its employee while acting within the scope of his or her duties with respect to one of eight categories of exceptions listed under Section 8542(b). 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(a). 2

In order then to defeat the governmental immunity of the County and the County Police, both local agencies, Simmons must have alleged conduct on their part which satisfies the two preconditions and a narrowly defined exception set forth in Section 8542. Mascaro v. Youth Study Center, 514 Pa. 351, 523 A.2d 1118 (1987).

This immunity is also extended to the employees of a local agency. Section 8546 of the Judicial Code provides the employee with the defense of official immunity where the conduct which gave rise to the injury was authorized or required by law or where the employee, in good faith, believed it was, or where the act was within the policy-making discretion granted the employee by law. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8546. Section 8545 of the Judicial Code further limits an employee's potential liability by providing that:

An employee of a local agency is liable for civil damages on account of any injury to a person or his property caused by acts of the employee which are within the scope of his office or duties only to the same extent as his employing local agency and subject to the limitations of this subchapter.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8545 (emphasis added).

However, Section 8550 of the Judicial Code provides an exception to the official immunity provided by Sections 8545 and 8546:

In any action against a local agency or employee thereof for damages on account of an injury caused by the act of an employee in which it is judicially determined that the act of...

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