Pennsylvania Record

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Commonwealth Court: SEPTA entitled to sovereign immunity in bus injury case

By Jon Campisi | Feb 28, 2014

A Pennsylvania appeals panel has affirmed a decision by a Philadelphia

judge to grant summary judgment to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in a negligence case brought by a mass transit rider.

Three judges sitting on the state’s Commonwealth Court ruled that a Common Pleas Court judge was correct to determine last February that SEPTA enjoyed sovereign immunity in a case brought by Lauren Muldrow, who allegedly sustained injuries to her head and other parts of her body when she fell down the stairs of a SEPTA bus while disembarking from the vehicle in the winter of 2009.

Muldrow maintained that SEPTA’s negligence was the cause of her accident while the lawyers for the mass transit agency argued that the plaintiff could not recover damages because her complaint did not fit within any of the exceptions of statutory sovereign for governmental agencies.

The trial judge in Philadelphia ultimately agreed with the defendant and dismissed the litigation.

Muldrow appealed to Superior Court on March 12, 2013; the case was subsequently transferred to Commonwealth Court, which often handles governmental matters.

On appeal, Muldrow argued that SEPTA was not entitled to sovereign immunity because of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s determination in a case titled Goldman v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority that the mass transit agency is not an arm of the commonwealth under the Eleventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Attorneys for SEPTA, however, countered that Goldman involved Eleventh Amendment immunity while the present case deals with state statutory immunity, what SEPTA called two distinct concepts that don’t share common origins or qualifying criteria.

The defendant further noted that weeks before the Goldman decision, the Supreme Court reaffirmed sovereign immunity in the case of Frazier v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board.

The Commonwealth Court panel determined that because Muldrow’s case is a state action, and does not involve federal law, Goldman allows it to hold that SEPTA is a commonwealth agency for the purposes of the Sovereign Immunity Act.

Muldrow had also argued that her claim falls within the vehicle liability exception in the statute, but SEPTA’s lawyers contended that she waived this issue because she did not raise it in her 1925(b) Statement of Errors Complained of on Appeal or in her brief filed with Commonwealth Court.

The appeals judges agreed with SEPTA.

“Accordingly, we hold that Muldrow waived any issues relating to the vehicle liability exception to sovereign immunity for failing to properly raise the same,” the panel wrote in its Feb. 26 opinion, which was written by Judge Anne E. Covey.

The other participating judges were Bernard L. McGinley and Rochelle S. Friedman.

Muldrow also argued that the stationary transit vehicle – it was stopped at the time of the incident – should be considered SEPTA’s personal property and the case treated as a slip and fall under the personal property exception to the Sovereign Immunity Act.

SEPTA countered that the bus is not personal property and, even if it were, the bus itself was not responsible for the plaintiff’s injury.

The panel agreed with SEPTA, which argued that because Mulgrow cited no law to support this argument, it is an “undeveloped argument” and should be considered waived.

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