Commonwealth Court: trial judge was right to dismiss City of Phila. from suit by woman injured in crash with police suspect

By Jon Campisi | Mar 11, 2014

A three-judge state appellate court panel has ruled that a trial judge was

correct to dismiss the City of Philadelphia from a negligence suit initiated by a woman who was injured after her vehicle was struck by a police squad car that had been commandeered by a handcuffed suspect.

Plaintiff Rebecca Gale had appealed the decision of a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who determined that the city was immune from suit because Gale’s complaint did not fall within one of the enumerated exceptions to governmental immunity in the Tort Claims Act.

The underlying litigation stemmed from a March 16, 2008, incident that began with suspect Jose Garriya taking over a police cruiser and driving it into the plaintiff’s vehicle.

Garriya, who had been handcuffed and placed into the back of the police car, had somehow managed to get free and commandeer the vehicle, ultimately driving it onto the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and careering into the back of Gale’s vehicle, court records show.

Gale, who says she sustained serious injuries as a result of the crash, argued that the trial court erred in concluding that the city was immune from suit because both Garriya and the police vehicle were in the custody and control of police, and that the actions of police officers were part of a continuous sequence of events that caused the operation of the police vehicle by the criminal suspect.

City lawyers had counter-argued that governmental immunity only applies where the vehicle is being operated by a local agency employee authorized to drive the vehicle and does not apply to the failure of a local agency employee to control a vehicle or the operator of the vehicle.

The appellate judges wrote that case law was clearly on the city’s side in this instance.

“The language of the statute and our cases make clear, however, that where an employee of a local agency has not acted by putting a vehicle in motion liability under the vehicle exception to governmental immunity will not attach,” states the ruling, which was written by Commonwealth Court Senior Judge James Gardner Colins.

The other judges who heard the case were Renee Cohn Jubelirer and Patricia A. McCullough .

The panel determined that the plaintiff failed to allege facts that trigger liability under the vehicle exception to governmental immunity, and thus affirmed the trial court’s order granting the city’s demurrer and dismissing the plaintiff’s amended complaint with prejudice.

The appeals judges cited the case of Pana v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which stemmed from an incident in which a passenger took control of a mass transit vehicle and drove through several counties, causing damage and injuries along the way.

The trial judge in that case determined that the plaintiff’s claims did not fall within the vehicle exception to governmental immunity because it was undisputed that the SEPTA bus was not being operated by a SEPTA employee or anyone who had permission to drive the bus.

Gale, the plaintiff in the current case, had argued that the two cases were different, since the person who commandeered the SEPTA bus was not under the control of the mass transit agency, while the handcuffed man who managed to take over the police car and injure her was under the control of police.

The city, however, contended that control over the vehicle or the operator of the vehicle causing injury was insufficient to trigger liability under the vehicle exception because the language of the Tort Claims Act clearly limits waiver of governmental immunity to employees “operating” a vehicle in the possession or control of the local agency.

The appellate panel wrote that from the face of Gale’s complaint, it is clear that like the plaintiff in Pana, she is alleging that her injuries arose from the police officers’ failure to prevent Garriya, the suspect, from operating the vehicle and not from their own operation of a vehicle.

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