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Stokes v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

September 23, 2009

MELISSA STOKES, AS ADMINISTRATRIX FOR THE ESTATE OF MATTHEW J. MUNRO, PLAINTIFF
v.
NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORP., ET AL., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stengel, J.

MEMORANDUM

Melissa Stokes, as Administratrix for the estate of Matthew J. Munro, brings this negligence claim for wrongful death and survival actions against the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Robert W. Knaub, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission,*fn1 and the Borough of Mount Joy. Mount Joy filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, claiming governmental immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8541, et seq. For the following reasons, I will grant the motion in its entirety.

I. BACKGROUND*fn2

On August 11, 2006, Matthew Munro and a friend were traveling on foot northward on South Market Avenue in the Borough of Mount Joy, Lancaster County. Munro proceeded to the South Market Avenue pedestrian crossing which consisted of wooden walkways situated over two parallel railroad tracks. It is alleged that Defendant Amtrak owned the crossing at all relevant times. Compl. ¶ 34. While crossing, Munro was struck and killed by a northbound passenger train also owned and operated by Amtrak. Id. at ¶¶ 9-15.

In Count IV of the complaint, the plaintiff asserts that Mount Joy breached its duties to (1) ensure that the crossing could safely accommodate pedestrian traffic; (2) provide the crossing with adequate warning devices to draw attention to approaching trains; and (3) ensure that sightlines at the crossing were free from obstruction, leaving a clear view of approaching trains. Id. at ¶¶ 60-62. Further, the plaintiff asserts that Munro's death was the direct and proximate result of Mount Joy's negligence. Id. at ¶¶ 64-65.

II. STANDARD FOR A MOTION TO DISMISS

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted examines the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The factual allegations must be sufficient to make the claim for relief more than just speculative. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). In determining whether to grant a motion to dismiss, a federal court must construe the complaint liberally, accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id.; see also D.P. Enters. v. Bucks County Cmty. Coll., 725 F.2d 943, 944 (3d Cir. 1984).

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a plaintiff to plead in detail all of the facts upon which she bases her claim. Conley, 355 U.S. at 47. Rather, the Rules require a "short and plain statement" of the claim that will give the defendant fair notice of the plaintiff's claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Id. The "complaint must allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 564. Neither "bald assertions" nor "vague and conclusory allegations" are accepted as true. See Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997); Sterling v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 897 F. Supp. 893 (E.D. Pa. 1995). The claim must contain enough factual matters to suggest the required elements of the claim or to "raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" those elements. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

III. DISCUSSION

Mount Joy argues that governmental immunity bars the state law negligence claim. Section 8541 of Pennsylvania's Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act states that "no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person."*fn3 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has noted that this section creates an "absolute rule of governmental immunity" intended to insulate political subdivisions from tort liability. Mascaro v. Youth Study Ctr., 523 A.2d 1118, 1123 (Pa. 1987). The phrase "any injury" has been construed widely to include all physical, mental, reputational, or economic injuries. E-Z Parks, Inc. v. Philadelphia Parking Auth., 532 A.2d 1272, 1277 (Pa.Super. 1987). However, liability may be imposed on a local agency where (1) damages would be recoverable at common law or under a statute creating a cause of action if the injury were caused by a person not protected by immunity, and (2) the claim falls within one of the eight statutory exceptions to governmental immunity in Section 8542(b) of the Act. Granchi v. Borough of N. Braddock, 810 A.2d 747, 749 (Pa Cmwlth. 2002). Section 8542 provides these exceptions for situations involving (1) the operation of motor vehicles; (2) the care, custody, and control of personal property of others in the possession or control of the local agency; (3) the care, custody and control of real property; (4) trees, traffic controls and street lighting; (5) utility service facilities; (6) streets; (7) sidewalks; and (8) care, custody and control of animals. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(1)-(8). The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has noted that because of the clear intent of the Act to insulate government from exposure to tort liability, the exceptions to immunity are to be strictly construed. Walker v. Eleby, 842 A.2d 389 (Pa. 2004) (citing Lockwood v. City of Pittsburgh, 751 A.2d 1136 (Pa. 2000)); see also Mascaro, 523 A.2d at 1123; accord Lory v City of Philadelphia, 674 A.2d 673, 675 (Pa. 1996); Kiley by Kiley v. City of Philadelphia, 645 A.2d 184, 185-186 (Pa. 1994). The plaintiff argues that Mount Joy is not entitled to governmental immunity because of the third, fourth, sixth, and seventh exceptions of Section 8542(b) of the Act. I do not agree.

A. Care, Custody, or Control of Real Property

In order to be exempt from governmental immunity under the third exception, Mount Joy must have been in the care, custody, or control of the real property. Section 8542(b)(3) provides, in pertinent part, that certain acts by a local agency or any of its employees may result in the imposition of liability on a local agency:

(3) Real property -- The care, custody or control of real property in the possession of the local agency, except that the local agency shall not be liable for damages on account of any injury sustained by a person intentionally trespassing on real property in the possession of the ...


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