Supreme Court tells Philadelphia school it must face lawsuit after student ran into unpadded gym wall

By Tomas Kassahun | Jan 11, 2019

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PHILADELPHIA - The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has affirmed a Commonwealth Court ruling, saying a Philadelphia elementary school is not exempt from governmental immunity in a lawsuit filed by a student who was allegedly injured due to the faulty condition of a gym wall.

In the ruling on Dec. 28, the Supreme Court said it can make an exception to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, which protects local political subdivisions such as public schools in lawsuits. The Supreme Court said specific exceptions exist “to this otherwise broad grant of immunity to these entities.”

In this case, the court considered the real property exception to governmental immunity, specifically “whether the absence of padding on a gym wall, into which a student ran during gym class, causing injury, falls within the exception.”

According to the opinion, 9-year-old Jarrett Brewington was injured in 2012 when he participated in a relay race during gym class at Walter G. Smith Elementary School in Philadelphia. 

“While Jarrett was running, he tripped and fell, causing him to propel into the wall at the end of the gym, hit and cut his head, and lost consciousness,” the opinion stated.  

Brewington’s mother, Syeta Brewington, brought a lawsuit in 2013 against the school and the School District of Philadelphia, according to the opinion.

“Mother alleged that Jarrett’s injuries occurred because of a defective and dangerous condition of the premises — namely, the concrete gym wall — and that the school was negligent in failing to install padded safety mats to cushion the wall,” the opinion stated.

According to the opinion, the school filed a motion for summary judgment, raising the defense of governmental immunity and claiming that the real property exception to governmental immunity under the act did not apply.

The Supreme Court said the lack of padding of a gym wall may constitute negligence in the care, custody and control of real property, therefore falling within the act’s real estate exception.

“The School first argues that it was not engaged in an act that involved the care, custody, or control of real property, and that no act involving the care, custody, or control of real property caused Jarrett’s injury,” the Supreme Court said. 

The school claims that it is entitled to governmental immunity because the injuries occurred as a result of the gym teacher’s negligent supervision of his students rather than because of the wall itself, the opinion stated.

The school adds that the real estate exception has consistently been found inapplicable in cases where the negligence claim involves the failure to supervise the conduct of students or other persons adequately, the Supreme Court said.

“Mother has plainly pled that the negligent acts, including the failure to act, of the school regarding the care, custody and control of real property in the possession of the school caused Jarrett’s injuries,” the opinion stated. 

The court added that the unpadded concrete wall which caused the injuries constituted real property in the school’s possession.

“In coming to this conclusion, we find the real property exception, by its express definitional terms, includes a failure to provide safety features in situations where such a duty otherwise exists,” the opinion stated. 

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