In a recent case sure to change the nature of municipal liability, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned thirty (30) years of precedent and rulings in redefining the meaning of the word “operation” under the Vehicle Liability Immunity Exception of the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (PTSCA) otherwise known as the Tort Claims Act.
This decision will have an impact for education involving cases where an injury is alleged to have occurred as a result of, or on, school-owned and operation vehicles such as buses or vans.
The purpose of the Tort Claims Act is to shield government entities from liability for ordinary negligent acts unless the claim is being brought pursuant to eight specially enumerated exceptions including an exception for the “operation” of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the political subdivision which includes school districts. Enacted in 1978, the Act was primarily intended to provide protection from the ever-growing world of potential liability for municipal units that often lacked the funds to pay numerous judgments and found it difficult to obtain insurance coverage.
In the recent case of Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a prior case and its progeny which defined “operation” of a vehicle as actual motion at the time of the injury. Under this definition where accidents occurred involving vehicles that are stopped or parked, the Courts had held that immunity applies and the municipal unit was protected.
Likewise, courts had long held that the exception to immunity is triggered only if the parked vehicle resumes movement or where a moving part of a parked vehicle is active.
In Balentine, a water authority employee operating an Authority vehicle parked in the roadway with his four way flasher traffic lights activated. The decedent was working, cleaning a water main several feet in front of the parked Authority vehicle.
Minutes later, the parked vehicle was struck from behind by a car and the decedent was injured when he was hit by the parked vehicle as it moved forward upon impact. The decedent was pinned under the Authority vehicle and subsequently passed away from his injuries. Initially, the lower courts dismissed the case on the grounds that there was no prior case law that had addressed the issue of involuntary movement of a vehicle and moreover they were constrained by prior case law that had limited the definition of operation to actual movement at the time the accident occurred.
Upon reviewing the decision of the lower court, the Supreme Court reasoned: 1) the word “operation” had never been defined in the Tort Claims Act and that 2) the definition which limited operation only to actual movement had been defined by prior court rulings, and not the legislature had actually impeded the development of consistent and logical case law. The Court reasoned this application produced absurd results particularly when compared to other laws like the driving under the influence (DUI) statute which imposed criminal sanctions even though “operation” used in that context did not require actual motion of the vehicle.
Bottom Line for Schools
The Balentine court redefined the term “operation” as a continuum of activity that included decisions of parking, turning, lighting and signaling. Under this new definition, the Court held that operation was not as narrow as merely motion backwards or forwards but should be viewed as the whole decision-making process that is attendant to moving a vehicle. With this new definition in place, the court concluded that the decedent’s widow had initiated an actionable claim that pierced immunity and allowed the case to continue against the Authority.
The take-away is that school districts are now subject to a broader, more expansive definition of movement for claims involving the operation of their vehicles. Balentine raises concerns that a whole line of cases finding immunity for school districts where injuries occurred to students getting on and off of buses may no longer be viable. Additional training of bus drivers in loading and unloading procedures is recommended in light of the changes in the law.
This School Law Bullet is a publication of the KingSpry Education Law Practice Group. John E. Freund is our editor. It is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.