Phila. judge urges Commonwealth Court to affirm summary judgment decision in fatal vehicle accident claim

By Jon Campisi | May 8, 2012

A Philadelphia judge is asking a state appellate court to affirm a First Judicial District ruling from last summer that granted summary judgment to the state and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in a case where the defendants were being sued over a deadly 1997 motor vehicle accident.

In a May 4 opinion filed at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Judge Allan L. Tereshko requests that Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court uphold his Aug. 17, 2011 ruling in favor of the defendants in a case initiated by Vince E. Oaks on behalf of his late wife, Rhonda Bronson.

According to background information in the case, Bronson was killed in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 1997, after her vehicle, which was traveling southbound along the Roosevelt Expressway, skidded across the roadway and into a raised median barrier curb.

The vehicle then went airborne, vaulted over the barrier into the northbound lanes of the expressway, and struck a vehicle occupied by Mark and Tyra Brooks.

Bronson and both Mark and Tyra Brooks died as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.

Oaks, Bronson’s common law husband, filed suit against the defendants on March 8, 2010.

In July 2011, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge granted the following month.

The plaintiff appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Superior Court in September 2011, and the following month the trial court ordered Oaks to file a Concise Statement of Errors Complained of on Appeal, which the plaintiff did in late October 2011, the background information on the case states.

In late November 2011, the Superior Court transferred the appeal to Commonwealth Court, which is Pennsylvania’s lower-tier appellate court.

The issues being raised on appeal involve whether the plaintiff’s claims are barred by a statute of limitations and whether the claims are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

In this case, the Philadelphia trial court ruled that Oaks’ claim was, in fact, barred by a statute of limitations.

Bronson’s fatal injuries occurred in late December 1997, meaning Oaks would have had to file his complaint by Dec. 24, 1999.

He didn’t file his complaint until March 8, 2010.

Oaks had argued that his claim could proceed under the state’s Minority Tolling Statute, which allows complaints being brought on behalf of those who were minor children at the time a cause of action arose to have the same window of opportunity in which to file a claim after the minor becomes an adult.

In this case, however, the trial court ruled that the Minority Tolling Statute is not applicable because Oaks, in his amended complaint, brought the action on behalf of Bronson, and not his then-minor son.

“Therefore, because the action was brought by Plaintiff as the personal representative of the estate, the statute of limitations was not tolled, and Plaintiff’s claims are barred,” the trial court ruled.

The trial court had also ruled that the defendants were protected under sovereign immunity due to their status as government entities.

The ruling stated that courts have held there can be no liability premised on the negligent installation of a safety fixture the government had no duty to provide.

“Therefore, Plaintiff’s contentions that the accident could have been avoided if the median was six inches higher or the barrier curb was placed closer to the median are insufficient to establish liability of the Defendants,” the ruling stated.

The trial court ruled that the defendants did not waive sovereign immunity in this case because the plaintiff’s claim does not arise from a dangerous condition of commonwealth real estate.

A Commonwealth Court panel now must either affirm or strike down the trial court’s decision.

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