For those unaware, government immunity is the doctrine that provides federal, state, and local governments with immunity against certain legal claims arising out of torts committed by a government employee, official, or agent. The doctrine comes from English law, which held that the crown could do no wrong. What this means today in Pennsylvania, in practical terms, is that in order to sue the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, your case must fall into one of several exceptions to government immunity.
One of the exceptions to government immunity is the motor vehicle exception, which seeks to hold the government responsible for motor vehicle accidents caused by government employees acting in the scope of their employment as a government employee. The motor vehicle exception to government immunity essentially waives immunity where the negligent act that caused the plaintiff’s injuries involves the movement and operation of the government owned or controlled vehicle or its parts.
An obvious example would be the motorist who accidentally gets rear-ended on a roadway by a local police officer in a police cruiser. This example clearly subjects the police officer and the government entity (the local police department) to liability for any injuries suffered by the driver who was rear-ended. The injuries occurred as a result of the ‘operation’ of a vehicle by a local government agency employee.
However, recent decisions in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania have limited the availability of the motor vehicle government immunity exception. These cases have held that the “involuntary movement of a vehicle does not include ‘operation’ for purposes of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity.”
In one case, a plaintiff sought to bring a lawsuit arising out of a motor vehicle accident in which it was alleged that a negligently parked municipal agency’s truck was hit, pinning and killing the plaintiff decedent. The Commonwealth Court held that, because the movement of the vehicle was not at the direction of a driver, it did not fall within the motor vehicle immunity exception to government immunity. The plaintiff, therefore, had no case against the municipal agency or its driver who had negligently parked the truck.
In 2014, a plaintiff failed to recover damages from the City of Philadelphia because the police cruiser that rear-ended her vehicle was being driven, at the time of impact, by a handcuffed man in custody, and not a by a police officer. The Commonwealth Court ruled that the action did not fall within the motor vehicle immunity exception because an employee of the municipal agency, in this case a Philadelphia police officer, was not in control of the police cruiser or the operator.
Unfortunately, for plaintiffs injured as the result of a motor vehicle accident caused by the negligence of a state or municipal vehicle, the courts in Pennsylvania have consistently held that exceptions to government immunity should be narrowly construed. The decisions noted above restrict even further a plaintiff’s ability to receive compensation for injuries from a government entity.