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Ivette Quinones v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

June 5, 2012

IVETTE QUINONES, APPELLANT
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND JOYCE BRUNELL, AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF JASON BRUNELL



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anne E. Covey, Judge

Argued: May 14, 2012

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge HONORABLE JAMES GARDNER COLINS, Senior Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE COVEY

Ivette Quinones (Quinones) seeks review of the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County‟s (trial court) August 3, 2011 order granting summary judgment in favor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation (DOT). The issue before this Court is whether the trial court properly granted summary judgment. We affirm.

On the morning of February 16, 2006, while driving on State Route (S.R.) 33, Jason Brunell (Brunell) lost control of his northbound vehicle, crossed the grassy median, and struck a southbound vehicle driven by Quinones. Brunell was fatally injured, and Quinones sustained severe injuries. On August 28, 2007, Quinones initiated the instant action against Joyce Brunell, as Administratrix of the Estate of Jason Brunell, and DOT. Quinones alleged that DOT was negligent in that it defectively designed, constructed, and/or maintained S.R. 33, and that the alleged defect was the cause of the crash.

On May 27, 2011, DOT filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that Quinones‟ claim was barred by sovereign immunity. On August 3, 2011, the trial court granted DOT‟s motion, finding that "the narrow median and lack of a guardrail does not constitute a defect in the real property." Trial Court Op. at 8. The trial court further found that Quinones had "fail[ed] to satisfy the threshold legal requirement that the median is a dangerous condition of the Commonwealth‟s realty." Trial Court Op. at 9. Quinones appealed to this Court.*fn1

Quinones argues that the trial court erred when it dismissed this matter. She claims that DOT owed a duty of care to the public to properly design and maintain the median to ensure that the median was safe for the activities for which it was regularly used, intended to be used or reasonably foreseen to be used, i.e., to "control," "impede" and "separate" the flow of traffic. Quinones reasons that because the median did not prevent Brunell‟s vehicle from crossing into her roadway, it failed in its essential purpose. We disagree.

"DOT is an administrative agency of the Commonwealth and a "Commonwealth party‟ pursuant to section 8501 of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8501. Commonwealth agencies, including DOT, generally are immune from tort liability pursuant to section 8521(a) of the Sovereign Immunity Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8521(a)." Cowell v. Dep't of Transp., 883 A.2d 705, 708 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005). Thus, sovereign immunity is available to DOT as a defense in all actions, except where the General Assembly has expressly waived it. Powell v. Drumheller, 539 Pa. 484, 653 A.2d 619 (1995).

By way of exception to the general rule of sovereign immunity, section 8522(a) of the Sovereign Immunity Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8522(a), provides that liability may be imposed against Commonwealth parties for damages arising out of a negligent act where: (1) damages would be recoverable under common law or statute creating a cause of action if the injury were caused by a non-immune entity; and (2) the injury caused by the negligent act of a Commonwealth party falls within one of the nine exceptions to sovereign immunity enumerated in 42 Pa.C.S. § 8522(b).

Cowell, 883 A.2d at 708.

The General Assembly has waived sovereign immunity for damages caused by "[a] dangerous condition of Commonwealth agency real estate and sidewalks . . . and highways under the jurisdiction of a Commonwealth agency . . . ."

42 Pa. C.S. § 8522(b)(4). Specifically, "sovereign immunity is waived . . . where it is alleged that the artificial condition or defect of the land itself causes an injury to occur." Dean v. Dep't of Transp., 561 Pa. 503, 510, 751 A.2d 1130, 1133 (2000) (quoting Snyder v. Harmon, 522 Pa. 424, 434-35, 562 A.2d 307, 312 (1989)). Exceptions to sovereign immunity are to be narrowly construed. Dean.

This Court has held:

[I]n order to prevail in a negligence action under common law, the plaintiff must establish that: (1) the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff; (2) that duty was breached; (3) the breach resulted in the plaintiff‟s ...


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