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November 29th, 2016

Pennsylvania Government Liability for Injuries Law Update 2016: Student Allowed to Sue School for Trip & Fall Accident?

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of a Philadelphia elementary school student who tripped during a relay race in a school gym. See Brewington v. Philadelphia (Nov. 14, 2016). The student’s lawsuit against the school was allowed to proceed under the real property injury exception in the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (Act).

In the Brewington case, the injured party was an elementary school student who tripped during a relay race in the school’s gym. He struck a bare concrete wall and sustained a concussion that caused multiple symptoms. His parent sued the school district on his behalf alleging that the school committed negligence in failing to place mats against the walls of the gym.

Related: Pennsylvania Slip & Fall Accident Law: Injured Plaintiff Must Prove the Cause and Location of the Accident

A trial judge in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas dismissed the case in favor of the school district, finding that the real property exception did not apply to the case. The case was appealed to the Commonwealth Court which overturned the trial court, thus allowing the student’s claim to proceed. The Commonwealth Court’s ruling indicates a broader application of the exception, the real property exception, which means that individuals may have better success suing local government entities for fall injuries or other injuries on government property. Historically, Pennsylvania courts have applied the exception at issue narrowly and in favor of government entities. This recent case clarifies the exception and how it applies.

Injuries on Government Property (Schools, Government Offices, Etc.)

Generally, the government cannot be liable for injuries that occur on its property. This is known as the principle of sovereign/governmental immunity and applies to government entities at all levels, local, county and state. The reasoning is that government entities operate for the good of all citizens and therefore should not be held liable for ordinary acts of negligence. To do so could bankrupt government entities. However, there are multiple exceptions to this blanket rule of no liability. The Pennsylvania legislature specified several exceptions through the Act and its sister Act, the Sovereign Immunity Act. The former applies to local government entities like counties or townships, as well as public school districts. The latter applies to state entities like SEPTA or the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

One of the most common exceptions under the Act (not its sister Act), is the real property exception which creates liability for negligence in “the care, custody or control of real property in the possession of the local agency…”Over the last 30 years, Pennsylvania appellate courts have created confusion about how and when this exception applies.

There are two seminal, but conflicting cases. First, in Grieff v. Reisinger (1997), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the real property exception applied, where a fire chief treated the floor of a fire station with a flammable substance which caught fire, injuring the plaintiff. Her claim was allowed to proceed.

Then came Blocker v. City of Philadelphia (2000) which held that an individual who fell on bleachers installed by the City at a concert on the City’s property could not bring an injury lawsuit under the real property exception. The court held that the bleachers were not part of the real property. Therefore, the exception did not apply, and the plaintiff’s case was dismissed. The court explained that the key distinction under the real property exception is whether the thing that caused the injury was real property or personal property. Real property usually means the property itself, such as steps or stairway, floors, etc. Personal property can become real property when affixed to the property. The distinction between real property and personal property has, for the most part, been the standard that courts apply in deciding whether a fall accident injury lawsuit against a government is allowed to proceed.

However, courts since the Blocker case have created confusion about the exception, when it applies and how. For example, in Bradley v. Franklin County Prison, a 1996 Commonwealth Court case, an inmate’s lawsuit was allowed against a prison for installing a tile floor in a bathroom without using any anti-slip materials/mats. But in Repko v. Chichester School District, a 2006 lower court case, a student’s claim for injury caused by a folding table was not allowed.

The Brewington Court – Emergence of a Better, Clarified Standard?

In the recent Brewington case, the Commonwealth Court spent a great deal of effort to clarify the real property exception. It cited prior court cases which have allowed lawsuits where the government’s negligent conduct made the real property “unsafe for activities for which it is regularly used, intended to be used or reasonably foreseen to be used.” That’s a much different standard than the real property versus personal property standard.

The Brewington court explained that the question of whether the injury was caused by real property versus personal property is a predicate question which must be answered before determining whether the negligent conduct made the property unsafe for its intended activities.

It is highly likely that the school district in the Brewington case will appeal the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Stay tuned.

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