The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s department of transportation (PennDOT) can be held liable for injuries caused by an allegedly dangerous guardrail on a Pennsylvania highway.
The court found that under the state’s Sovereign Immunity Act, exemptions for sovereign immunity apply to damages caused by the guardrail, which was erected on state property.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is typically subject to immunity from suits seeking damages due to negligence, except under certain circumstances. Section 8522(a) of the Act waives immunity for damages due to negligence in which the damages would be recoverable under common law or a statute creating a cause of action if the injury was caused by someone who was not eligible for sovereign immunity.
In this case, the supreme court found that when PennDOT installs a guardrail, sovereign immunity is waived if the agency’s negligent installation and design creates a dangerous condition.
“…an invitee on Commonwealth real estate would expect a guardrail alongside the road to prevent or minimize harm, not to ‘spear’ her and cause ‘significantly more severe injuries,'” Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Christine Donohue wrote in the majority opinion.
This case comes after Joisse and Dale Cagey filed a negligence action against PennDOT on June 22, 2015.
In their complaint, the Cageys alleged that on January 26, 2015, they encountered snow and ice along State Route 551 in Beaver County, Penn. As a result of the conditions, Joisse lost control of their vehicle, which spun off the road and slammed into an adjacent guardrail. The guardrail pierced the vehicle’s side, resulting in injuries to Joisse, including toe, foot and leg fractures, according to Donohue in the majority opinion document.
The Cageys sought damages for Joisse’s injuries and for Dale’s loss of consortium, the opinion document stated. They alleged their damages were due to PennDOT’s negligent installation of a guardrail and its failure to inspect or correct the issue.
On September 8, 2015, PennDOT filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the Sovereign Immunity Act prevented it from liability for the Cageys’ claims. The Cageys then filed a reply, conceding that the trial court was bound by existing Commonwealth Court decisions interpreting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in 2000 over Dean v. Dep’t of Transp., the opinion document said. In the Dean case, the supreme court held that PennDOT is not responsible for erecting guardrails along Pennsylvania roadways.
On December 4, 2015, the trial court granted PennDOT’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. The Cageys then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that its prior decisions have improperly expanded the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s holding in the Dean case, the opinion document stated.
Sovereign Immunity Argument
The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting PennDOT’s motion, explaining that its decisions after the Dean case “represent a logical and reasonable application of principles set forth by our Supreme Court, which have gone uncontradicted by our legislature,” according to the opinion document.
On appeal, the Cageys argued that the Dean case does not apply to the facts of this case, because it only establishes that the Commonwealth’s failure to install a guardrail does not lead to a waiver of sovereign immunity. They contended that the Commonwealth Court has interpreted the facts of the Dean case to mean that a dangerous and defective guardrail is legally equivalent to the absence of a guardrail, according to Donohue’s opinion document.
The Cageys also argued that section 8522(b)(4) of the Sovereign Immunity Act creates a real estate exception, rather than separate highway and real estate exceptions, which imposes liability for injuries caused by any dangerous conditions on Commonwealth real estate. Because in common law, an owner of land would be held liable for the installation of a dangerous guardrail adjacent to a highway, the Cageys asserted that the General Assembly intended PennDOT to be liable in this case, the opinion document said.
PennDOT, however, argued that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Dean meant the failure to install a guardrail had nothing to do with road travel safety, according to the opinion document.
Because the guardrail in the Cageys’ case did not affect their ability to travel safely on the road, PennDOT argued it can’t be held liable for injuries caused by it, regardless of whether it was negligently designed and installed, Donohue wrote in the opinion document.
PennDOT also contended there is a difference between its responsibility to keep all Commonwealth real estate safe for its intended use and its particular responsibility to keep the portion of the highway safe that is used for vehicular travel, according to the opinion document. While PennDOT conceded that the Dean ruling stated it doesn’t have a responsibility to install guardrails, it argued the underlying meaning of that decision is that it doesn’t have a responsibility to ensure the safety of vehicles that spin off of the roadway.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decision
In its decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that in order for liability to be imposed on PennDOT, three statutory requirements must be met. The injury must have resulted from a dangerous condition, the dangerous condition must be a condition of Commonwealth agency real estate and the damages must be recoverable under common law if the injury were caused by someone who was not subject to sovereign immunity.
The Cageys claimed that the guardrail causing their injuries was a dangerous condition, and it was installed adjacent to a highway under PennDOT’s jurisdiction.
“It is a well settled tenet of property law that whatever is annexed to the land becomes land,” Donohue wrote in the majority opinion. “Here, PennDOT undertook to permanently install guardrails alongside the highway. Accordingly, the guardrails, which are physically attached to the land, became fixtures thereof and thus part of the land itself.”
Because of this, the court found that the guardrail was a condition of Commonwealth agency real estate. The court also found that in common law, “a possessor of land is liable for harm caused by a dangerous condition that he would have discovered through the exercise of reasonable care.”
The allegation that the guardrails were negligently inspected and installed meets the final common law requirement, according to the supreme court.
With this in mind, the supreme court ruled that sovereign immunity is waived, and PennDOT may be held liable for any damages caused by the negligent installation or design of the guardrail in this case.
“Having found that the Cageys’ allegations fit squarely within the Sovereign Immunity Act’s real estate exception, we conclude that PennDOT is not immune from suit,” Donohue stated in the majority opinion.
The supreme court reversed the decision of the Commonwealth Court and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.