Commonwealth Court issues rulings in lawsuit over exposed Philadelphia trolley track

By Corinne Lincoln-Pinheiro | Apr 26, 2017

PHILADELPHIA — The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has reversed some decisions of a trial court regarding the case of a Philadelphia man who sustained injuries when his motor scooter struck an exposed and discontinued trolley track in 2013. 

The court on March 29 reversed decisions regarding crossclaims between the City of Philadelphia and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) dealing with responsibility in the case. The court also upheld the trial court's decision to deny Joseph Lacava's amended complaint in which he claims civil rights violations against those entities.

In the case, Lacava sued the city and SEPTA and won damages upon appeal, court documents said. Lacava originally alleged negligence and premises liability causes of action against the city, SEPTA and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. 

The Department of Transportation was dismissed from litigation, but the city and SEPTA went to trial. Both agencies were held liable, and Lacava was awarded $700,000 in damages. The plaintiff and defendants filed post-trial motions for relief but were denied. Both government entities appealed and the decision was written by Judge Patricia A. McCullough with the Commonwealth Court.

The Lacava case

In his motion for post-trial relief, Lacava alleged SEPTA provided documents after the fact that would have directly addressed liability and notice issues litigated during trial. Court documents said he claimed SEPTA acted with deliberate indifference regarding the known danger of the trolley tracks and caused him injury, pain and suffering. 

He also claimed SEPTA performed and maintained repairs at the accident site prior to his injuries and thus had prior notice of the dangerous condition. He amended his complaint requesting punitive damages and federal civil rights violations against SEPTA.

City of Pennsylvania v. SEPTA

According to court documents, the city sought judgment post-trial asserting that Lacava’s injuries were caused by trolley tracks or the street’s surface (which SEPTA maintained). The city claims it did not breach or owe any duty to him because he failed to establish that the case applied to the city. It also sought entry of judgment on its crossclaims against SEPTA because it had previously entered a lease-leaseback with the city. SEPTA leased property to the city, agreeing that the city would retain maintenance and repair responsibilities. The city then signed a leaseback agreement with SEPTA for the same property but relegated responsibility for maintenance and repairs back to SEPTA.

SEPTA, on the other hand, sought judgment alleging the verdict should have been in its favor because Lacava failed to produce sufficient evidence that they should be the ones held responsible and that they had notice of the alleged dangerous situation. SEPTA claimed evidence showed it was a pothole and not a raised rail and it wasn’t SEPTA’s negligence that caused Lacava’s accident. SEPTA requested a new trial because it alleged the verdict was contrary to the weight of evidence against it. The city and SEPTA sought to revise the amount awarded to Lacava.

Trial court ruling

The trial court denied all motions and post-trial relief put forth by the plaintiff and defendants save for the city and SEPTA’s motions to mold the verdict to its share of Lacava’s award.

It ruled that Lacava failed to establish a case for a federal civil rights action against SEPTA and that the agency was immune from punitive damages.

It said the city was not entitled to judgment because Lavaca presented evidence of a dangerous condition of a city-owned street—the city’s conduct stopped it from assessing liability against SEPTA and it may be held liable for maintenance and repairs. Because the city performed a voluntary undertaking when it received a complaint (prior to Lavaca’s injury) of an alleged defect within SEPTA’s scope but failed to notify SEPTA, and was negligent when it repaired the defect, the city was responsible.

The court denied the city’s motion for entry of judgment regarding its crossclaim against SEPTA because it failed to present any evidence at trial regarding its indemnification agreement with SEPTA and it delayed until post-trial motions to introduce the lease-leaseback agreement.

SEPTA’s post-trial motion for a new trial and judgment were denied because Lacava presented evidence of a defect in SEPTA’s property that created a sufficiently dangerous condition which SEPTA either should have known or knew about and was sufficient to fall under the real estate exception to sovereign immunity. The court said its ruling was correct to charge the jury with SEPTA’s adverse inference instruction because of missing documents related to work completed near the site of the accident. It further ruled that the jury’s verdict was not contrary.

The city and SEPTA were liable, and the plaintiff was awarded approximately $60,000 in compensatory and delayed damages. Appeals were filed.

Appeals court findings 

The appeals court said the lower court misread the decision pertaining to the city’s ability to pursue a crossclaim against SEPTA and not to the parties’ respective duties.

The plaintiff’s accident occurred prior to the city’s notification to SEPTA that it would no longer be responsible for maintenance and repairs. Ultimately, because of the lease-leaseback agreement, SEPTA was required to indemnify the city for the plaintiff’s award, it ruled.  

In the court’s opinion, the trial court’s refusal to grant the city’s motion for judgment was wrong because Lacava failed to establish that the city breached a duty sufficient enough to establish a negligence claim.

The rejection of SEPTA’s motion for judgment was incorrect as well, the court ruled. Lacava failed to present sufficient evidence that the alleged dangerous condition of the trolley rail was sufficient to fall within the real estate exception to sovereign immunity, it ruled.

The trial court also erred in refusing to grant SEPTA’s motion for judgment, the Commonwealth Court ruled. Because there was insufficient evidence that SEPTA had actual written notice of the alleged dangerous condition, and Lacava failed to establish they received such notice, there was basis to conclude that his claim fell within the pothole exception to sovereign immunity, it ruled.

The trial court’s decision that Lacava failed to establish a case for a federal civil rights action against SEPTA was correct because such motions were ineffective—he couldn’t establish a legitimate claim and to change the motion to include civil rights violations was futile because the agency was immune from punitive damages, the court ruled.

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Organizations in this Story

City of Philadelphia Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

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