Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules on Government Liability for Fall Accidents
In late 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling on government liability for fall (slip and fall or trip and fall) accidents that happen on government property. It wasn’t necessarily a clarification on the law, but it clearly defines liability for accidents that happen on government property like schools, government buildings, etc.
In Brewington v. City of Philadelphia (December 28, 2018), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, an elementary school student who tripped and fell during a gym class. The student, who at the time was 9 years old, tripped during a relay in the school’s gym. As a result, he fell head first into an unpadded concrete wall and suffered a serious head injury.
Government Liability for Fall Accidents in Pennsylvania
In general, government agencies in Pennsylvania are immune from liability. That’s because from a public policy standpoint, local agencies which are funded via tax payer dollars, would go bankrupt if they had to defend and pay out on lawsuits. That’s why there’s the general principle of immunity.
Local Versus State Government Agencies
Government liability for fall accidents in Pennsylvania has a pretty tortured history, decades in the making. It starts with the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, which allows people to sue a local (not state) government agency or entity for specific acts of negligence. This Act applies to agencies like the City of Philadelphia, school districts, local townships, etc. It does not apply to state entities like PennDot or SEPTA. Negligence lawsuits like fall accident lawsuits against state agencies are allowed by an entirely separate law, the Sovereign Immunity Act.
Liability for Accidents on the Premises
For purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on lawsuits against local agencies, like the City of Philadelphia. The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act allows claims for premises liability, i.e., accidents that occur on government property. This applies to school property, government owned buildings, etc.
The Act, which can be found at 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8541 et seq., provides for liability only in certain situations. The one that applies to fall accidents like slip and fall or trip and fall accidents is Section 8542 (b)(3), which provides:
Real property.–The care, custody or control of real property in the possession of the local agency, except that the local agency shall not be liable for damages on account of any injury sustained by a person intentionally trespassing on real property in the possession of the local agency…[emphasis added]
It is important to note that this section does not apply to accidents caused by trees or on streets or sidewalks. Trees, streets and sidewalks have their own subsections under Section 8542.
Real Property versus Personal Property
At the trial court level in the Brewington case, the plaintiff lost. The Commonwealth Court reversed and found that the school could be liable. The school appealed to the PA Supreme Court which agreed with the Commonwealth Court. The case focused on the cause of the injury, real property versus personal property. In the case, the cause of the injury was the unpadded gym wall, i.e., real property.
As section (b) of the Act indicates, government agencies are only liable for injuries caused by real property, NOT personal property. So what’s the difference? Real property is generally defined as land, structures built on land and things that are affixed to those structures, i.e., things that are not movable. Personal property is everything else, i.e., are movable.
Under the Brewington case, and as indicated by the Real Property exception, local government agencies can be liable for fall accidents that happen if and only if the cause of the injury is real property, part of a building (wall, ceiling, floor, etc.) or things attached or affixed to parts of a building. Local agencies cannot be held liable when the cause of the injury is personal property, things that aren’t attached to real property.
Limits on Compensation Amounts Recoverable
Because government agencies are funded by tax payers, there are limits to what injured plaintiffs can recover. In personal injury lawsuits against local agencies, the max recoverable is $500,000, per incident. See Section 8553.
In addition, claimants are only allowed to make claims for pain and suffering in cases of death or cases of permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement or permanent dismemberment so long as the medical expenses exceed $1,500.
There are very specific time limits on filing these types of cases against government entities. There is a mandatory notice requirement that must:
1. be filed within 6 months of the date of the incident,
2. be filed with the correct agency, and
3. contain specific information specified by statute.
Failure to serve this notice in accordance with the statutory requirements will result in dismissal of the case.
Philadelphia, PA Fall Accident Law Firm
Our lawyers handle fall accident lawsuits in Pennsylvania and are rated as top lawyers in Philadelphia by Super Lawyers. For a free consultation call (215) 985-0777.