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JOSEPH KENNEDY v. DELAWARE RIVER JOINT TOLL BRIDGE COMMISSION (03/11/76)

decided: March 11, 1976.

JOSEPH KENNEDY, PLAINTIFF
v.
DELAWARE RIVER JOINT TOLL BRIDGE COMMISSION, DEFENDANT



Original jurisdiction in case of Joseph Kennedy v. Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission.

COUNSEL

Jack Sirott, for plaintiff.

Robert W. Valimont, with him William E. Benner, and Power, Bowen & Valimont, for defendant.

President Judge Bowman and Judges Crumlish, Jr., Kramer, Wilkinson, Jr., Mencer, Rogers and Blatt. Opinion by President Judge Bowman.

Author: Bowman

[ 23 Pa. Commw. Page 664]

This matter is before us on preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (defendant) to a complaint in trespass filed by one Joseph Kennedy (plaintiff); the demurrer raises the issue of defendant's entitlement to sovereign immunity. In addition, this Court raised sua sponte the issue of our exclusive original jurisdiction over plaintiff's cause of action, notwithstanding an opinion of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County which transferred this case to us, holding it was without jurisdiction to entertain the same.

Plaintiff seeks damages for personal injuries suffered as a result of a one car crash on January 3, 1974. The mishap occurred when the vehicle operated by plaintiff went out of control while traveling west on the New Jersey side of the Lower Trenton Bridge and collided with the superstructure of said bridge. The bridge spans the Delaware River between Trenton, New Jersey and Morrisville, Pennsylvania, and is owned by the State of New Jersey and the Commonwealth and is operated and maintained toll free by the defendant. The accident allegedly resulted from negligent maintenance of the bridge by defendant.

By reason of defendant's demurrer and the jurisdictional question we have raised sua sponte, we, perforce, decide not only whether defendant is within the umbrella of sovereign immunity under the Pennsylvania Constitution,*fn1 but also whether it is the "Commonwealth" within the meaning of Section 401(a)(1) of the Appellate Court Jurisdiction Act of 1970*fn2 (ACJA); that section confers exclusive original jurisdiction upon this Court in all civil actions and proceedings against the Commonwealth

[ 23 Pa. Commw. Page 665]

    or any officer thereof except as to several classes of actions not here relevant.

In the past, sundry legislatively created entities in our governmental structure have been accorded diverse treatment as to their status as the "Commonwealth" for purposes of fixing the jurisdiction of this Court depending essentially upon the particular statute creating the instrumentality.*fn3 Concurrently, sovereign immunity has been under heavy attack as an acceptable doctrine in our time and in its application to particular governmental entities. Somewhat unusual and far reaching results have emerged, not the least of which is the issue of whether instrumentalities of the Commonwealth for purposes of our exclusive original jurisdiction are necessarily equated with those legislatively created instrumentalities which enjoy sovereign immunity. In our considered judgment, we believe they must be and decide the issues accordingly.

At the outset, therefore, we must carefully examine the statutory law creating the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission and defining its powers and duties. Defendant was originally constituted by the Act of May 8, 1919, P.L. 148, as amended, 36 P.S. ยง 3272, to acquire toll bridges across the Delaware River north of Philadelphia. Of the five Pennsylvania members of the defendant Commission, three are executive officers of the Commonwealth, thereby stamping it with the imprint of our state government. Later, the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission was formally created by a ...


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