The widow of a contractor killed in 2012 will be able to file a wrongful-death negligence claim against the Chester Water Authority for his death, according to an opinion issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Tuesday that overturned 30 years of precedent.
The opinion upends a 1988 state Supreme Court ruling that required “movement” of a motor vehicle as a function of its “operation” in assigning liability under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act. The act generally provides governments with immunity from lawsuits except in limited circumstances, including the negligent operation of a motor vehicle.
The case centers on the accidental death of Edwin Omar Medina-Flores on Aug. 15, 2012, while he was working in a ditch on the 1200 block of Kerlin Street in Chester.
Medina-Flores was inside the 4-foot by 4-foot ditch near a grassy strip by the sidewalk when CWA inspector Charles Mathues parked his truck on the southbound side of the road, activated flashing hazard lights, and exited the vehicle, according to the opinion.
The truck, which was about 10 to 15 feet from the ditch, was left running, according to the opinion. While Mathues testified that only about 10 or 12 inches of the truck was in the roadway of the two-lane street, one witness claimed the truck was 80 percent in the roadway and another said the vehicle “was completely in the road,” according to the opinion.
The truck was struck from behind by another vehicle and pushed onto Medina-Flores, killing him. His widow, Victoria Balentine, filed a complaint in Delaware County Common Pleas Court in November 2013 against CWA and Mathues, as well as the driver and owner of the striking vehicle.
Delaware County Judge Spiros Angelos granted CWA and Mathues summary judgment, finding Balentine’s claims were barred by the Tort Claims Act. Balentine removed the driver and owner of the striking vehicle as defendants and appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
The Commonwealth Court upheld the trial court’s ruling, however, agreeing that the truck was not “in operation” at the time of the accident as a matter of law because it was not “in motion.”
In writing the opinion, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey noted that no Pennsylvania case previously addressed whether the “involuntary movement” of a vehicle constituted operation for the purposes of governmental immunity.
Senior Commonwealth Court Judge Rochelle S. Friedman dissented, arguing that whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary is irrelevant because the statute does not qualify “operation” in those terms.
“If the movement of the vehicle causes the injury, the vehicle is deemed to be in operation,” Friedman wrote. “Here, Medina-Flores’ injuries and death were caused by the moving CWA truck. Therefore, the CWA truck was in operation, and the trial court erred in determining that the vehicle liability exception to the Tort Claims Act does not apply.”
But the Supreme Court found that even the question of voluntary or involuntary motion was not central to the governing statute because the vehicle liability exception refers only to “operation,” not to “motion.”
It was not the legislature that defined the term, but rather the Supreme Court itself in a 1988 case titled Love v. City of Philadelphia. In deciding that case, the court found that “to operate something” meant “to actually put it into motion.”
“For 30 years, this definition has impeded the development of consistent and logical caselaw,” according to the majority opinion penned by Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy. “Where accidents occur involving vehicles that are stopped or parked, the courts have held that immunity applies. …However, where the parked vehicle resumes movement … and where a moving part of a parked vehicle is active … the Commonwealth Court has held that the exception to immunity is triggered.” Justice Max Baer noted in a concurring opinion that this has led to some bizarre consequences, including a Commonwealth Court opinion that held a SEPTA bus was not “in operation” when it was struck at an intersection because it was “stopped.”
Mundy points out that there were issues with the definition from the start. In a dissent to Love, former Justice Nicholas P. Papadakos argued that if the Legislature intended motion to be a necessary factor of operation, “it is capable of making such a distinction by using the appropriate language.”
In the sole dissenting opinion for Balentine, Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor deferred to the legal principle of stare decisis, or adherence to precedent, and indicated changing the definition should be left to the legislature. He noted the General Assembly had amended the motor vehicle exception in 1995, but did not provide further guidance concerning the definition of “operation,” indicating its agreement with the Love court’s construction.
But Justice Cyril Wecht stated in another concurring opinion that a “foolish consistency in rigid adherence to stare decisis despite a given precedent’s failings or unintended consequences is the hobgoblin of bad law – and it is insufficient reason not to revise the law to reconcile legislative intent with lived experience.”
The Supreme Court looked to another dissenting opinion from former Justice Sandra Schultz Newman in a 1999 case that argued “operation” of a vehicle reflects “a continuum of activity.”
“‘Operation’ does not mean simply moving forward or backwards, but instead includes the decision making process that is attendant to moving the vehicle,” Newman said. “Had the legislature intended that recovery was permissible only when the vehicle was actually in motion, the Legislature would not have used a word that implies a process, such as the term ‘operation.’”
Mundy wrote that by defining operation as motion, the Supreme Court had also created a precedent contrary to the Rules of Construction in the Pennsylvania Code. The Rules provide that in attempting to construe the intention of the General Assembly, courts may presume that it “does not intend a result that is absurd, impossible of execution or unreasonable.”
“For the General Assembly to have intended the abrogation of governmental immunity based on the random factor of motion is an absurd or unreasonable result,” the opinion found.
The Supreme Court instead adopted a definition but forth by Newman in her dissent that “operation” entails “a series of decisions and actions, taken together, which transport the individual from one place to another.”
“The decisions of where and whether to park, where and whether to turn, whether to engage brake lights, whether to use appropriate signals, whether to turn lights on or off, and the like, are all part of the ‘operation’ of a vehicle,” Newman wrote.
Based on that holding, the court found Balentine has pled facts sufficient to establish a cause of action for negligence and remanded the case for further proceedings.
“This was a tragic death for my client and his family; I am happy that his family will finally have their day in court,” said Balentine’s attorney, Michael Shaffer, in a statement. “The Sovereign Immunity hurdles seemed to be raised higher and higher over the years and had no real relationship to the actual language of the Immunity Statue itself … I think lawyers on both sides have struggled with this area of the law and (the) court’s opinion finally gives practitioners a logical and practical approach to handle our cases going forward.”