Court: SEPTA protected from wrongful death damages by Sovereignty Immunity Act

By Jim Boyle | Mar 16, 2015

PHILADELPHIA - Following the guidelines of the Sovereignty Immunity Act, the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

cannot be held liable for non-pecuniary damages in a wrongful death suit, according to a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel.

A ruling published Thursday says that SEPTA's status as a Commonwealth agency shields the transit authority from certain wrongful death damages, such as a parent's non-pecuniary claim of loss of consortium.

The decision reverses a previous ruling by the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, which held that precedent supported a plaintiff's claim against SEPTA.

According to the opinion authored by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, the family of Stephanie Ebersole sued SEPTA following her Aug. 15, 2012 death. The original claim says that Ebersole, 30, fell from the train platform at the South-Lombard Station in Philadelphia and was electrocuted.

The suit, filed by her father and administrator of her estate, Jay Ebersole, says Stephanie was left on the tracks for hours until a train struck and killed her.

The wrongful death suit sought damages for Stephanie's father, mother and sister. The trial court granted a partial motion in favor of SEPTA, saying her sister was not entitled to damages under the Wrongful Death Act and damages for funeral expenses could not be granted under the Sovereignty Immunity Act.

However, the court balked at dismissing the claims for non-pecuniary damages, despite acknowledging the precedent in Department of Public Welfare v. Schultz that held that a parent cannot receive non-pecuniary damages, specifically loss of consortium, from an agency covered by the Sovereignty Immunity Act.

In the 2004 case, a mentally challenged adult patient at Clarks Summit State Hospital, walked out of the hospital and died from exposure to the cold. His mother filed a wrongful death action against the Department of Public Welfare and the State Hospital. The deceased's mother sought recovery for “comfort, society, love, affection, companionship, support, and friendship” of her child.

The defendant argued that the claim amounted to loss of consortium, a claim only a spouse can file. The Supreme Court affirmed the argument, saying tort suits against the Commonwealth are permissible only where the legislature has expressly waived immunity.

Even where sovereign immunity has been waived, the Supreme Court says, only specific damages may be recovered under the Sovereign Immunity Act, including loss of earnings, pain and suffering, medical expenses, loss of consortium, and property losses. The plaintiff argued that her non-pecuniary losses arising from her son’s death fell into the “loss of consortium” category. The Supreme Court rejected this argument because only a spouse can recover damages for loss of consortium.

The court also said that its decision only applied to wrongful death suits affected by the Sovereignty Immunity Act. If the suit had been filed against a private entity, damages may have been recovered.

Attorneys representing Ebersole's estate said that the precedence of Schultz has been challenged by the Superior Court in Rettger v. UPMC Shadyside. That 2010 Superior Court case involved the appeal by UPMC Shadyside of a jury verdict holding the hospital negligent in the death of an adult patient and awarding $2.5 million on the claim of wrongful death.

One of the issues raised on appeal by the hospital was that the verdict was excessive because the deceased was unmarried, without children and only provided limited services to his parents when he visited them on weekends.

Faulting the hospital for not offering any legal authority to support its position, the Superior Court held that under the Wrongful Death Act, family members may recover “the value of his services, including society and comfort.”

The Superior Court rejected the idea that “services” included only the value of household chores and concluded that the term extended to “the profound emotional and psychological loss suffered upon the death of a parent or a child where the evidence establishes the negligence of another as its cause.”

The Superior Court explained that “the definition of compensable services for the purpose of the [wrongful] death statute is similar to the definition of consortium as that term is applied in other negligence claims.”

The Commonwealth Court panel agreed with SEPTA that the Rettger decision was irrelevant to the appeal because the case involved a suit unaffected by the Sovereignty Immunity Act, and the Superior Court ruling could not supercede the Supreme Court decision.

In her concurring opinion, Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman supported the reasoning for the court's reversal. However, she also took the opportunity to call on the Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania legislative body to address the changing definitions of family brought up by the Rettger decision.

"Societal definitions of marriage and family have changed considerably since 2004," Friedman writes. "It is only logical that loss of consortium, as used in the Sovereign Immunity Act, should be expanded to include other types of non-pecuniary losses that have been recognized under the law, including the loss of society and companionship resulting from the death of a child."

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