- Commonwealth Court Reaffirms that Real Property Exception to Governmental Immunity Under Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act Requires that Cause or Source of Harm be Local Agency Real Property and Not Its Personal Property.
- April 27, 2017 | Author: Paul G. Lees
- Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - Allentown Office
Ronhilde J. Gillingham, Appellant v. County of Delaware, No. 2532 C.D. 2015, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, 2017 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 31, Feb. 14, 2017
This case arose out of a trip and fall accident at the Delaware County Recorder of Deeds’ office. The plaintiff visited the County Recorder of Deeds office to conduct title searches. As the plaintiff sat to conduct searches at a County computer, her foot became entangled in the computer cables and wires under the computer cubicle. When she stood up and began to walk away from the computer, she fell and sustained injury. The plaintiff claimed that the accident occurred due to the County’s negligence in failing to maintain the floor and permitting computer cables to be present. The plaintiff further argued that it is not necessary for her to show that a fixture to the real property caused the injuries. Instead, relying on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Grieff v. Reisinger, 548 Pa. 13, 693 A.2d 195 (Pa. 1997), and its rejection of the “of / on” distinction in analyzing what constitutes a dangerous condition, the plaintiff argued that it was sufficient for her to show that the County was negligent in its care, custody or control of the real property, namely, the floor in the Recorder of Deeds office, by allowing cables to be in an area where invitees could trip over them.
In dismissing the plaintiff’s case, the trial court relied upon the approach from Blocker v. City of Philadelphia, 563 Pa. 559, 763 A.2d 373 (Pa. 2000) and determined that the cause of her fall was personal property, i.e., the computer cables, and not a fixture of the defendant County’s real property and, therefore, the Real Property exception to immunity didn’t apply.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court explained that under the Grieff approach, the determinative inquiry is whether the injury is caused by the care, custody or control of the real property itself. Under the Blocker approach, the determinative inquiry is whether the injury is caused by personalty, which is not attached to the real estate, or by a fixture, which is attached. If the injury is caused by the real property, including a fixture, the real property exception overrides governmental immunity. If the injury is caused by personalty that is merely on the real property, however, the political subdivision remains immune. In rejecting the plaintiff’s attempt to couch the cause of her injury as a problem with the care, custody or control of the floor, the court determined that she was not injured as a result of the floor being negligently maintained. Rather, she tripped because her foot was entangled in computer cables when she tried to stand up and walk away from a computer cubicle. The cause of the plaintiff’s injury was the personalty-i.e., the computer cables-rather than the surrounding real property.
This case illustrates that the outcome of a dispute under the real property exception can hinge on how wide or narrow the court chooses to view its determination of what constitutes “care, custody or control” of real property and the cause of a plaintiff’s harm. In this case, the court determined that the use of computer cables was unrelated to the “care of the floor.” However, an opposite decision could have occurred if the court chose to view the use of the cables as “care, custody and control” of the Recorder of Deeds office space. In defending these matters, it is always important to make the focus as narrow and specific as you can, which is in keeping with one of the primary purposes of the Tort Claims Act-making local agency liability “the exception rather than the rule.”