Jon Campisi Nov. 13, 2013, 10:11am


An en banc Commonwealth Court panel recently reversed a Philadelphia

judge’s decision that found against the Philadelphia Parking Authority in a personal injury case brought by a woman injured in a city parking garage.

The seven-judge appellate panel, in an opinion filed Nov. 8, reversed a previous decision by a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who ruled against the PPA in the amount of $15,000 in a case initiated by Geraldine Oliver, a woman who fractured her right foot on March 20, 2009, after exiting a shuttle van transporting her to her vehicle on the third-level of a parking garage operated by the PPA in downtown Philadelphia.

Oliver subsequently sued the PPA, along with Tropiano Transportation Inc., Tropiano Transportation Service, Tropiano Bus Company and Tropiano Tours over her injuries.

The PPA had contracted with Tropiano to provide shuttle service for its garage customers to and from the upper levels of its garage, the record shows.

The woman claimed the combined negligence of the various defendants led to her broken foot.

Lawyers for the PPA soon filed an answer to the complaint in which they claimed the agency was subject to sovereign immunity, arguing that Tropiano was solely responsible for Oliver’s injuries.

In its subsequent motion for summary judgment, the PPA argued that it is a local agency immune from suit under the Tort Claims Act, that Oliver failed to prove that the vehicle liability or real property exception to governmental immunity applied, and that Oliver cannot recover damages for pain and suffering because she did not sustain “permanent loss of bodily function, permanent disfigurement or permanent dismemberment” as required by state statute.

A Philadelphia judge ultimately denied the PPA’s motion for summary judgment, leading the case to go to a non-jury trial.

The judge ended up finding in favor of Tropiano but against the PPA in the amount of $15,000, determining that Tropiano had no presence on the property, the shuttle van was owned and operated by the PPA, and the driver’s action of letting Oliver off at a point of incline in the garage was in violation of the PPA’s directives, according to the Commonwealth Court ruling.

Relying on the case of Blount v. Philadelphia Parking Authority, the trial court had held that the PPA is a commonwealth agency, meaning the case is governed by the real estate exception to sovereign immunity.

The trial judge had determined that while the ramp in the parking garage was not defective, it still constituted a dangerous condition of the property because it played a significant role in causing Oliver’s injuries.

Finding that the woman lost about three months worth of work but didn’t suffer permanent loss of bodily function as a result of her injuries, the trial judge awarded Oliver $30,000, reduced by half due to her contributory negligence of misjudging the distance to the ground when exiting the shuttle van.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the PPA argued that for purposes of tort immunity, it is a local, not commonwealth, agency, and since Oliver didn’t sustain permanent bodily damage, she was barred from recovering damages for pain and suffering.

The PPA also asserted that the woman couldn’t recover damages pursuant to the real property exception to governmental immunity because the property was not defective.

The agency also contended that even if the trial court was correct in holding that the PPA is a commonwealth agency, Oliver still couldn’t collect damages under the real estate exception to sovereign immunity because there was no dangerous condition of the property established.

Based on case law, the Commonwealth Court judges wrote in their ruling, the PPA is “clearly a local agency in the context of this case.”

As stated in Blount and another case titled James J. Gory Mechanical Contracting Inc. v. Philadelphia Housing Authority, the relevant inquiry in determining the PPA’s status for purposes of tort immunity is whether the agency was created by the state to perform a state function, the appeals ruling notes.

In this case, the PPA’s regulation of parking is a purely local function, the panel wrote.

“Therefore, the trial court erred in holding that the Authority is a Commonwealth agency with respect to the instant matter,” the ruling states.

And because the PPA is a local agency, the Commonwealth Court wrote, it is subject to the limitations on damages set forth in the Tort Claims Act.

Oliver, the panel wrote, could only recover damages for pain and suffering if she had “permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement or permanent dismemberment,” and because the woman admitted at trial that she had fully recovered from her injuries, she is barred from recovering damages for pain and suffering.

The panel also noted that Oliver has not made out a claim under the real property exception to governmental immunity.

To maintain such a negligence claim, the court wrote, Oliver must prove her injury resulted from a dangerous condition arising from the local agency’s care, custody or control of the real property.

“In this case, it was not the ramp itself, which the trial court found was not defective, but the purported negligence of the van operator in leaving Oliver off on the ramp that caused Oliver’s injuries, making the real property exception to governmental immunity applicable,” the ruling states.

The opinion was written by Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini.

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