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Kuniskas v. Commonwealth

July 10, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert Simpson, Judge

Submitted: May 15, 2009




In this appeal, Andrew Kuniskas (Plaintiff) asks whether the Court of Common Pleas of the 44th Judicial District, Wyoming County Branch (trial court) erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) in Plaintiff's negligence suit. The trial court determined Plaintiff, who suffered injuries as a result of a collision that occurred while he attempted to flee from a state police officer, could not sustain a cause of action against the PSP for his injuries because state police troopers do not owe a duty of care to fleeing drivers. See Frazier v. Commonwealth, 845 A.2d 253 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004). Discerning no error in the trial court's decision, we affirm.

In May 2006, Plaintiff was unlawfully operating an all-terrain vehicle (ATV)*fn1 on State Road 29 in Noxen, Wyoming County. The ATV approached PSP Corporal Joseph Walsh, who was driving a marked patrol car in the opposite direction. According to Plaintiff, Corporal Walsh "came towards [him] like he was going to cut [him] off." Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 209a. Plaintiff was travelling north, and Corporal Walsh testified as Plaintiff approached, Corporal Walsh pulled into the northbound lane, partially blocking it, in an attempt to stop Plaintiff. Plaintiff then made a U-turn in front of Corporal Walsh and fled in the opposite direction.

During their depositions, Plaintiff and Corporal Walsh offered differing accounts of what occurred next. For his part, Corporal Walsh testified he pursued Plaintiff at a distance with lights flashing. On the other hand, Plaintiff testified he did not notice any flashing lights because Corporal Walsh's vehicle continually struck the ATV in an attempt to make it spin out and stop it. In any event, Plaintiff did not stop, but rather continued to flee from Corporal Walsh.

Eventually, Corporal Walsh's patrol car collided with the ATV and it overturned, causing injuries to Plaintiff. Plaintiff then freed himself from the overturned ATV and continued his flight from Corporal Walsh; however, he was later apprehended. As a result of the incident, Plaintiff pled guilty to driving under suspension (DUI Related) and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.*fn2

In September 2007, Plaintiff filed a negligence action against the PSP seeking damages for his injuries. The PSP filed an answer and new matter and, after a period of discovery, moved for summary judgment.

Ultimately, the trial court issued an order granting summary judgment in favor of the PSP. Plaintiff appealed to this Court, and the trial court issued an opinion in support of its order in which it stated, in pertinent part:

It is the Plaintiff's obligation to establish a cause of action (by statute or common law) for which damages may be awarded, before addressing the issue of sovereign immunity. To this end, [the PSP] relies upon [Frazier] which is factually similar to this matter. Put simply, that case held that a state police officer does not owe a duty of care to a driver who flees. As no cause of action independently exists here, summary judgment was appropriate.

Tr. Ct., Slip Op., 12/8/08 at 2. This matter is now before us for disposition.

On appeal,*fn3 Plaintiff argues the trial court erred in relying exclusively on Frazier when it granted summary judgment in favor of the PSP as that case is distinguishable from the facts presented here. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts, Frazier involved a high speed chase in which a police cruiser pursued a fleeing motorist, and the vehicle driven by the fleeing motorist later collided with a tree, killing the driver. Unlike Frazier, he contends, here the police cruiser and Corporal Walsh were the instrumentalities that caused the fleeing ATV to crash. To that end, Plaintiff argues Corporal Walsh engaged in reckless and dangerous behavior by repeatedly and purposefully ramming the ATV. Ultimately, Plaintiff contends, Corporal Walsh willfully caused the ATV to spin out of control and flip. For these reasons, Plaintiff asserts, this case differs substantially from the facts at issue in Frazier and, as a result, the PSP is not immune from suit here.

The PSP responds Plaintiff suffered injuries on an ATV in the course of flight from a state trooper who was trying to apprehend him for traffic violations. Under these circumstances, the PSP asserts, the law is clear that the police officer owes no common law duty of care to the fleeing suspect and, as ...

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