Huge Win for Injured Victims in New Pa. Supreme Court Vehicle Crash Ruling
By Dean I. Weitzman, Esq. on August 27th, 2018
In Pennsylvania over the past five years, if a vehicle owned and operated by a municipal entity in the Commonwealth such as SEPTA or even a local water authority was involved in a crash while it was not physically moving, the Commonwealth or the entity would be immune from paying you any damages.
Think about that for a minute.
Even if the Commonwealth or SEPTA or a local water authority vehicle were parked illegally, sticking out into a roadway in a way that it could not be avoided and was struck by the car you are traveling in or driving, you would have no way to collect damages for your serious injuries, pain and suffering and loss of work.
All of that was possible because of Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act, which only allows the Commonwealth itself to be sued for damages in certain limited cases and only for a limited amount of damages. Ah, isn’t it great when your state legislators protect the mothership from providing you with an opportunity to recover fair and adequate damages if you are injured in a motor vehicle when a municipal employee does something stupid?
In a vehicle accident involving a Commonwealth vehicle, prior court rulings have determined that if a vehicle owned by a state entity is not moving – if it is parked or stopped – then the state or its entity cannot be sued for damages since it was not moving at the time of the alleged crash.
That means that if a parked SEPTA bus or a municipal water authority vehicle puts others in danger by being positioned vulnerably on a roadway, you can’t collect damages even if the primary reason for the collision was the ridiculous placement of the errant vehicle.
That’s absurd. But that’s how it has been for plaintiffs in Pennsylvania in the last few years.
Yet that’s finally changing due to an Aug. 21 decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which voted to dump this ridiculous provision by reversing a prior court decision which had placed plaintiffs in this predicament from the start.
The case that led to the reversal was that of Edwin Omar Medina-Flores, who was working in a ditch in his job as a subcontractor on a water line project for the Chester Water Authority (CWA) on Aug. 15, 2012. A CWA project inspector arrived in a CWA truck, parked next to the ditch and left the vehicle’s engine running and four-way flashers operating. While the inspector was out of the truck to go over construction plans with the work crew minutes later, the parked truck was rear-ended by another vehicle in the roadway and pushed into the victim in the ditch, killing him.
Witnesses said the water pipe inspector’s truck was parked almost completely within the traffic lane near the ditch where Medina-Flores was working, which is how it was pushed into the victim when a car rear-ended the inspector’s truck.
Medina-Flores’ widow, Victoria Balentine, filed a lawsuit against the water authority, against the inspector whose truck was pushed into her husband and against the driver and owner of the vehicle that had smashed into the rear of the parked inspector’s truck.
But prior courts ruled that since the CWA truck was “parked” with its four-way flashers on and was not actually moving or being driven at the time of the incident that the state had no liability in the case under the existing provisions of the Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act.
No longer, thanks to the new state Supreme Court decision.
“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),” the decision states. “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.”
Regarding the lawsuit filed by the victim’s wife, the court wrote that “a CWA employee operated a CWA vehicle and parked it in the roadway. The CWA vehicle was hit from behind by another vehicle as it sat on the roadway, and the CWA vehicle struck Medina-Flores fatally injuring him. Balentine has pled facts sufficient to establish a prima facie cause of action in negligence based on acts that constitute the operation of a vehicle. Accordingly, the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity applies in this case.”
This ruling is a huge win for victims in Pennsylvania who are severely injured due to negligence by a state or municipal worker in a vehicle crash. Previously, those victims may not have been able to collect damages due to exceptions and limitations spelled out in the state’s Sovereign Immunity Act.
But no longer will government entities in Pennsylvania have these protections from liability for their negligence that they have enjoyed in the past. Yes, the cap of $250,000 in damages in such cases still exists due to the Act, but that’s another battle to be fought perhaps another day.
No longer does the law in the state wrongly and narrowly define a valid vehicle claim against the state as one that only involves a state vehicle with a driver behind the wheel while the vehicle is actually in motion, thanks to the state Supreme Court.
This decision by the court is a common sense decision that recognizes the rights of individual citizens to be protected when they are injured by someone who works for a governmental entity. The ruling reverses prior decisions that helped the government, insurance companies and big business and ignored the health and safety of individuals.
There’s also a political and civics lesson in the court’s groundbreaking ruling. This decision shows why it is so important for us all to know who the candidates are when we vote in our elections, and to know what they stand for and who they will best represent.
In the last election, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gained three new Democrat judges who were elected to serve the state’s residents. Those justices had a major role in this ruling. And unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which now leans to the far right and mostly in support of big business, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court just demonstrated its support for fairness and individual rights for the Commonwealth’s citizens.
Legal cases like this one occur around the nation every day and are examples of similar kinds of cases that MyPhillyLawyer attorneys regularly work on tirelessly for our own clients. Often, we are not able to discuss the cases we are actively working on due to confidentiality requirements, so we discuss other relevant cases in the news such as this one to illustrate the legal situations people find themselves in every day.
We here at MyPhillyLawyer stand ready to assist you with your legal case if you or a loved one is ever seriously injured in any kind of vehicle incident anywhere in the United States. We pledge to make sure that you and your family get the compassionate, dogged and experienced legal representation that you deserve and expect from a professional legal team which works hard to uncover every fact to bolster your case and maximize your damage award.
We represent the families of victims who die in such tragedies as well, to ensure that their families receive every penny of damages that they are eligible to receive.
Call MyPhillyLawyer at 215-227-2727 or toll-free at 1-(866) 352-4572 anytime and our experienced, compassionate, aggressive team of attorneys and support staff will be there for you and your family every step of the way as we manage your case through the legal system.
When Winning Matters Most, Call MyPhillyLawyer.
Listen to Court Radio every Sunday at 7 a.m. with me, attorney Dean Weitzman of MyPhillyLawyer, on Philadelphia’s Old School 100.3 WRNB, Boom 103.9 or on Praise 107.9 WPPZ FM. Listen to Court Radio online or on the radio every week for the latest on legal topics and to get answers to your legal questions. In addition to addressing the topical issues of the day, we’ll answer caller questions on a wide range of legal issues.