Imagine you're walking downtown and crossing the street. As you step into the crosswalk with the walk signal highlighted for pedestrian traffic, a government car enters the crosswalk and strikes you, causing serious injuries. Can you sue the owner of the car that hit you? Say the owner of the car was the City or another government agency, like the Department of Transportation. Will you be able to recover for your serious injuries?
Under Pennsylvania law, Commonwealth agencies like PennDOT and local agencies like the City of Philadelphia are generally immune from all liability with very limited exceptions. This means that if you are injured as a result of the negligence of a government agency, you have limited rights to pursue legal action. However, the Pennsylvania legislature made an exception for car, bus/transit or pedestrian accidents.
There are two separate statutes which apply to the above scenario. First, Pennsylvania's Sovereign Immunity Act, which begins with 42 Pa. C.S. Section 8521, limits liability of Commonwealth agencies. Second, the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, which begins with 42 Pa. C.S. Section 8541, limits liability of local agencies such as the City. Both laws allow liability for car accidents, so long as the car was in the possession or control of the government.
Section 8522 (b)(1) allows liability for "The operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party."
Section 8542(b)(1) allows liability for "The operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the local agency, provided that the local agency shall not be liable to any plaintiff [who is committing a crime, such as fleeing arrest]".
Even though neither statute says anything about proving negligence, a plaintiff must still show negligence on the part of the driver of the Commonwealth/local government driver.
In these situations, when a government agency is liable for a car accident or pedestrian accident, there are legal requirements which must be followed before filing a lawsuit. The most important requirement is a mandatory notice requirement. Regardless of whether a Commonwealth or local agency is responsible for a car or pedestrian accident, an injured person must send notice of the accident to the responsible agency within 6 months of their accident. That notice must also contain very specific information.
In addition to liability for car accidents, Commonwealth or local agencies may be held liable for accidents caused by defects in property it owns, such as sidewalks, streets/roads/highways, traffic signs, etc. Again the 6 month notice requirement also applies for each type of accident.
*This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.