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Leiphart v. City of Philadelphia

March 23, 2009

LISA LEIPHART
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, APPELLANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Pellegrini

Argued: February 25, 2009

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge, HONORABLE DORIS A. SMITH-RIBNER, Judge, HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge, HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge.

OPINION

The City of Philadelphia (City) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) denying its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (j.n.o.v.) and finding it liable to Lisa Leiphart (Leiphart) for injuries she sustained on City streets. For the reasons stated below, we reverse the trial court's order.

On October 31, 2005, Leiphart was crossing Chestnut Street in Philadelphia between 15th and 16th Streets when she tripped and fell on a raised portion of Chestnut Street resulting in serious injuries.*fn1 The raised portion of Chestnut Street was the result of past excavation work by a permit recipient. Prior to Leiphart falling, the City had issued five excavation permits over a three-year period. It had also issued permits to PECO Energy Company (PECO) and Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) within two years before Leiphart fell. It further issued two permits to Henkels & McCoy as agents and contractors for PECO and two permits to JMS/ULS as agents for PGW. Henkels & McCoy then subcontracted all of its excavation work to Walter Rowe, Inc. The City also issued a permit to a Comcast contractor. The recipient of one of these permits did not properly flatten Chestnut Street after performing work.

Leiphart filed a complaint against the City, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation (PennDot), PECO and PGW alleging that the City and its employees and other defendants acting within the scope of their employment were responsible and liable for the condition of the road; the dangerous, unsafe and defective condition of the road consisted of, inter alia, an uneven road surface and hump in the road causing a variance in the height of the roadway which existed for a long time prior to the date of the accident because it appeared to be an unfinished repair and defendants should have known of its existence; their negligence caused the condition; they failed to warn Leiphart of the condition; they failed to adequately maintain the street and make the necessary and proper repairs; and solely by their negligence caused Leiphart's injuries. The City filed an answer with new matter denying the allegations and under new matter arguing that it was immune from suit under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (Tort Claims Act), 42 Pa. C.S. §§8541-8542, and that any injuries sustained by Leiphart were due to her own negligence.*fn2

The City filed a motion for summary judgment which Leiphart opposed and was denied by the trial court by order dated January 4, 2008. The case was scheduled to begin trial on March 4, 2008. Prior to trial, Leiphart settled her claims against all of the defendants except the City. Because the City was the only remaining party and the dispute was limited to the issue of the City's liability, the parties requested a bench trial on that issue. The trial court judge agreed and Leiphart waived her right to a jury trial. A compromise was reached on the amount of damages in exchange for the agreement that both parties would be bound by the trial court judge's decision and if liability was found, the City would pay $90,000 to Leiphart within 10 days of that judgment.

The trial court found the City liable under the streets exception of the Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa. C.S. §8542(b)(6),*fn3 for a dangerous and defective condition because it owned Chestnut Street. Citing Walker v. Eleby, 577 Pa. 104,842 A.2d 389 (2004), it stated that there was no dispute that Chestnut Street, which was previously designated as a "state highway" by our General Assembly, was actually owned by the City as determined by our Supreme Court. The trial court went on to explain that it was undisputed that Leiphart fell due to the raised condition of Chestnut Street resulting from excavation work overseen by the City (the dangerous condition); the City had inspected all work so that the risk of a trip and fall was reasonably foreseeable and that the City had actual notice of the hazard; and that the City had sufficient time to correct the hazard or even close Chestnut Street if a dangerous condition existed. The trial court disputed the City's argument that a written contract had to be present between the City and the Commonwealth, 42 Pa. C.S. §8542(b)(6)(ii)(A), because "the City of Philadelphia must be deemed to own Chestnut Street." (Trial Court's August 13, 2008 decision at 6.) The trial court then ordered the City to pay Leiphart $90,000 within 10 days. This appeal by the City followed.*fn4

The City contends that the trial court erred in finding that the City owned Chestnut Street within the meaning of the street exception set forth in 42 Pa. C.S. §8542(b)(6)(i) of the Tort Claims Act.*fn5 It argues that Chestnut Street as a state highway is not owned by the City but by the Commonwealth, because once the Commonwealth assumes jurisdiction, local agencies, such as the City, are no longer responsible for the maintenance of the roadway. Instead, the Commonwealth agency assumes liability, and absent a contract placing liability on the local agency, the agency is not liable.

In determining the ownership of Chestnut Street for the purpose of determining liability under the Torts Claim Act, we begin our analysis with Section 102 of the State Highway Law, Act of June 1, 1945, P.L. 1242, 36 P.S. §670-102, which defines "state highway" as follows:

"State highway" shall mean and include all roads and highways taken over by the Commonwealth as State highways under the provisions of any act of Assembly. Unless clearly so intended, the term shall not include any street in any city, borough or incorporated town, even though the same may have been taken over as a State highway. (Emphasis added.)

As the trial court noted in its decision, that portion of Chestnut Street where Leiphart fell was designated as a state highway:

All or part of the following various public highways . [shall be] adopted by the Commonwealth as a State highway . Route 67318. Beginning at the intersection of Schuylkill Expressway and Chestnut Street; thence easterly on Chestnut Street to the intersection of Chestnut Street and Sixth Street, beginning again at the intersection of Chestnut Street and Fifth Street; thence easterly on Chestnut Street and Delaware Avenue, a distance of about 2.2 miles.

See Laws of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, State Route 3008 and Legislative Route ...


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