Soverign Immunity Remains Tough to Overcome in PA.

Recently, a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) claim of sovereign immunity in a stationary bus accident. In the case of Wright v. Denny, suit was brought against SEPTA to recover damages stemming from a June 30, 2007 accident where plaintiff was injured when an uninsured driver rear-ended the stopped SEPTA bus he was travelling on. Suing under Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL), the plaintiffs argued that SEPTA was obligated to pay benefits out of its uninsured-underinsured coverage for the June 30 incident. Further, the plaintiffs also claimed that SEPTA was exposed to liability given the motor vehicle exception to sovereign immunity.

Senior Judge James R. Kelley, writing for a unanimous court, rejected the plaintiff’s contentions, noting that actions brought pursuant to the MVFRL must comport with the narrowly interpreted provisions of the state’s immunity statues. In Pennsylvania, the motor vehicle exception is applicable only when the local agency’s vehicle is in “operation.” Citing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Love v. City of Philadelphia, Kelley applied a strict definition of “operation” requiring actual motion to trigger the exception. Kelley then went on to explain that stopped vehicles are protected by immunity because “[m]erely preparing to operate a vehicle, or acts taken at the cessation of operating a vehicle are not the same as actually operating that vehicle.” Given that the bus was stopped at the time it was struck, Kelley easily concluded that SEPTA was not subject to the exception thus barring the plaintiff from relief.

Special thanks to Adam Gomez for his contributions to this post.  For more information about it, or WCM’s Pennsylvania practice, please contact Bob Cosgrove at rcosgrove@wcmlaw.com.