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Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act Bars Claims Sustained Due to Accident With Vehicle Stolen From Local Agency. Motor Vehicle Exception to Governmental Immunity Applies Only Where Agent of Local Agency Actually Operated Vehicle in Question

Paul G. Lees
Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - Allentown Office

July 1, 2014

Previously published on July 1, 2014

Rebecca Gale, Appellant, v. City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Police Department and Jose Garriya, No. 1173 C.D. 201, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, 86 A.3d 318; 2014 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 133 (3/4/14)

The tortfeasor in this matter was taken into custody by the Philadelphia Police Department, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police cruiser. Notwithstanding his restraints, he somehow managed to commandeer the police cruiser. The plaintiff was in her vehicle when the police cruiser driven by the arrestee struck her vehicle from behind and resulted in her sustaining serious injury.

The plaintiff filed suit and argued that her cause of action falls within the vehicle exception to governmental immunity. She contended that both the arrestee and the vehicle were in the custody and control of police and that the actions of police officers were part of a continuous sequence of events that caused the operation of the vehicle by the arrestee. In rejecting her claims, the court observed that the Tort Claims Act contains eight enumerated exceptions to the General Assembly’s broad grant of immunity from tort claims to local governmental agencies and that the statutory language of the exceptions to governmental immunity contained in the Tort Claims Act must be construed narrowly, i.e. immunity remains the rule.

The vehicle exception to governmental immunity permits liability where a plaintiff’s injury is due to “[t]he operation of any motor vehicle in possession or control of the local agency....” 42 Pa. C.S. § 8542(b)(1). The word “operation” means “to actually put in motion” and does not include preparing to operate a vehicle, or acts taken at the cessation of operating a vehicle. Even though it was undisputed that the city owned the police vehicle, where an employee of a local agency has not acted by putting a vehicle in motion, liability under the vehicle exception to governmental immunity will not attach. The plaintiff’s allegations that her injuries arose from the police officers’ failure to prevent the arrestee from operating the vehicle and not from their own operation of a vehicle were insufficient to raise a claim under the exception.


The views expressed in this document are solely the views of the author and not Martindale-Hubbell. This document is intended for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for consultation with a licensed legal professional in a particular case or circumstance.

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