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Mannella v. Port Authority of Allegheny County

October 6, 2009

ANTHONY MANNELLA, BY MARY MANNELLA, HIS ATTORNEY-IN-FACT
v.
PORT AUTHORITY OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY, APPELLANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge PELLEGRINI*fn1

Argued: May 4, 2009

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge, HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE JAMES R. KELLEY, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Before this Court is an interlocutory appeal involving the issue of whether a bus driver's negligent placement of a bus wheelchair ramp falls within the vehicle exception to sovereign immunity under Section 8522(b)(1) of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa. C.S. §8522(b)(1).

Anthony Mannella, by Mary Mannella, his attorney-in-fact (collectively, "Mannella") filed an action against the Port Authority of Allegheny County (Port Authority) in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court) alleging that a Port Authority bus driver negligently deployed the bus wheelchair ramp unevenly with the ground without properly securing it, causing him to fall out of his wheelchair and sustain serious injuries.*fn2 After the pleadings were closed, the Port Authority filed a motion for summary judgment. Citing Love v. City of Philadelphia, 518 Pa. 370, 543 A.2d 531 (1988), and cases that followed, it contended that Mannella's injuries did not fall within the vehicle exception to immunity because it was undisputed that neither the bus nor the wheelchair ramp was in operation at the time.

The trial court denied the Port Authority's motion for summary judgment. Finding that there were no questions of fact and that only a question of law remained, the trial court directed the parties to file a petition for interlocutory appeal with this Court to determine whether the negligent placement of the ramp fell within the vehicle exception to sovereign immunity.

The Port Authority filed a petition with this court for permission to appeal an interlocutory order pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1311, which we granted to consider the following issue:

Whether Section 8522(b)(1) of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa. C.S. §8522(b)(1), relating to the statutory exception to sovereign immunity associated with the operation of a motor vehicle, applies to the instant action filed against the Port Authority of Allegheny County (the Authority) for negligently lowering a wheelchair ramp on a bus operated by the authority thereby injuring Appellee such that sovereign immunity has been waived?

(R.R. at 65a.)*fn3

While the Port Authority is a Commonwealth agency entitled to sovereign immunity, Marshall v. Port Authority of Allegheny County,524 Pa. 1, 568 A.2d 931 (1990), the General Assembly created exceptions to that immunity when it enacted what is commonly know as the Sovereign Immunity Act.*fn4 Section 8522 of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa. C.S. §8522, provides that a Commonwealth party's sovereign immunity is waived where: (1) the alleged act of the Commonwealth party is a negligent act for which damages would be recoverable under the common law or by statute, and (2) the act of the Commonwealth party falls within one of the exceptions listed in 42 Pa. C.S. §8522(b).*fn5

The exception at issue here is the vehicle exception to sovereign immunity found at Section 8522(b)(1) of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa. C.S. §8522(b)(1), which provides, in relevant part:

(1) Vehicle liability.--The operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party. As used in this paragraph, "motor vehicle" means any vehicle which is self-propelled and any attachment thereto, including vehicles operated by rail, through water or in the air. (Emphasis added.)

In Love, our Supreme Court addressed what was meant by "operation" as used in 42 Pa. C.S. §8522(b)(1). That case involved an elderly woman who fell while using a portable step to assist passengers when exiting a city-owned van. Holding that the negligent placement of the portable step did not fall within the exception, our Supreme Court held that for a vehicle to be in operation, it had to be moving. It explained that "[T]o operate something means to actually put it in motion. Merely preparing to operate a vehicle, or acts taken at the cessation of operating a vehicle are not the same as actually operating that vehicle.. Getting into or alighting from a vehicle are merely acts ancillary to the actual operation of that vehicle." 518 Pa. at 375, 543 A.2d at 533. (Emphasis in original.)

We have declined to apply the vehicle liability exception in cases that did not involve the actual movement of the vehicle, including in the area of public transportation, consistently holding that a passenger's act of alighting from the steps of a bus does not involve the "operation" of a bus for purposes of the vehicle liability exception to sovereign immunity. See Bazemore v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, 657 A.2d 1323 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1995) (passenger's injury sustained when tripping on bus steps while exiting did not come under vehicle liability exception); Bottoms v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority,805 A.2d 47 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002) (passenger's fall while stepping from bus steps to curb because driver failed to kneel bus did not come under ...


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