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Lacava v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

March 29, 2017

Joseph Lacava
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority
City of Philadelphia, Appellant Joseph Lacava
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and City of Philadelphia Appeal of: Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Joseph Lacava, Appellant
SEPTA and City of Philadelphia

          Argued: February 7, 2017



          PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge

          This matter involves various cross appeals from the December 21, 2015 orders of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court), which, inter alia, denied the City of Philadelphia's (City) post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.) and entry of judgment against Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA); denied SEPTA's post-trial motion for judgment n.o.v. and a new trial; and denied Joseph Lacava's (Lacava) post-trial motion to file an amended complaint.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On July 13, 2013, Lacava sustained injuries when the wheel of his motor scooter allegedly struck a discontinued and exposed trolley track near the intersection of 11th and Cantrell Streets in the City. Lacava subsequently commenced suit against SEPTA, the City, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), [1]alleging negligence and premises liability causes of action. After trial, the jury found both SEPTA and the City liable and awarded $700, 000.00 in damages, attributing thirty percent of the causal liability to the City and seventy percent to SEPTA. Thereafter, the City, SEPTA, and Lacava filed post-trial motions for relief.

         City's Post-Trial Motion

         In its post-trial motion, the City sought judgment n.o.v., asserting that Lacava did not present sufficient evidence to establish that the City breached any duty to Lacava because his injuries were caused by trolley tracks or the street surface within eighteen inches of those tracks, which it averred is SEPTA's duty to maintain pursuant to Yackobovitz v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, 590 A.2d 40 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1991). Similarly, the City argued that it did not owe Lacava a duty under section 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (the Restatement)[2]because the same does not apply to government action and, even if it did, Lacava failed to establish that it applies in this matter.

         The City also averred that Lacava failed to introduce sufficient evidence to fall within the "streets" exception to governmental immunity under the act commonly referred to as the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act[3] because Lacava's injuries were caused by trolley tracks, which is not a dangerous condition of the street. Moreover, even if the injuries were caused by the street surface, the street surface was within eighteen inches of the tracks, which the City asserted is SEPTA's responsibility to maintain.

         The City also sought an entry of judgment on its crossclaim against SEPTA, alleging that it entered into a lease-leaseback agreement[4] with SEPTA wherein SEPTA agreed to indemnify the City for any claims arising from the defective condition of SEPTA trolley tracks, or the maintenance of the street surface within eighteen inches of the tracks. Alternatively, the City requested an evidentiary hearing on its crossclaim pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure (Pa.R.C.P.) No. 227. The City also sought to mold the verdict against it to $210, 000.00 based on its thirty percent liability of the $700, 000.00 verdict.

         SEPTA's Post-Trial Motion

         In its motion for post-trial relief, SEPTA sought judgment n.o.v., asserting that no reasonable person could disagree that the verdict should have been rendered in favor of SEPTA because Lacava failed to produce sufficient evidence to establish that: an exception to sovereign immunity applied to SEPTA; SEPTA's alleged negligence caused Lacava's harm; SEPTA had notice of a dangerous condition at the location of Lacava's accident; and SEPTA was seventy percent causally negligent.

         SEPTA also sought a new trial, alleging that the jury's verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence and shocks the conscience. According to SEPTA, a new trial was warranted because, inter alia, Lacava failed to meet his burden to show that SEPTA could be liable under an exception to sovereign immunity; the evidence overwhelmingly showed that the cause of the accident was a pothole and not a raised rail; Lacava failed to establish that SEPTA had notice of the alleged dangerous condition; and, over SEPTA's objection, the trial court submitted a verdict sheet that failed to include any special interrogatories regarding the issue of whether Lacava's claims fell within an exception to immunity. SEPTA also sought to mold the verdict and reduce the $490, 000.00 award of damages to $250, 000.00 pursuant to the statutory cap contained in section 8528 of the Sovereign Immunity Act.[5]

         Lacava's Post-Trial Motion

         In his motion for post-trial relief, Lacava alleged that SEPTA provided him with additional discoverable documents after trial that directly addressed liability and notice issues that were litigated during trial.[6] According to Lacava, these documents indicated that SEPTA performed maintenance and repair work at the accident site prior to Lacava's injuries and belied SEPTA's contention that it did not previously inspect or have prior notice of the dangerous condition. Consequently, Lacava's post-trial motion sought to amend his complaint to include counts against SEPTA for punitive damages and civil rights violations because Lacava averred that SEPTA acted with deliberate indifference regarding a state-created danger that affected his bodily integrity and freedom from bodily pain or assault.

         Trial Court's Decision

         By orders entered December 21, 2015, the trial court denied the City's motion for judgment n.o.v. and entry of judgment against SEPTA; denied SEPTA's motion for judgment n.o.v. and request for a new trial; denied Lacava's request for leave to file an amended complaint; and granted the City's and SEPTA's motions to mold the verdict. The parties appealed and were directed to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure (Pa.R.A.P.) 1925(b).

         Trial Court's Analysis of the City's Post-Trial Motion

         The trial court determined that the City was not entitled to judgment n.o.v. because Lacava presented evidence of a dangerous condition of a City-owned street. The trial court acknowledged that, generally, SEPTA is responsible for maintenance of trolley tracks, the road between the rails, and the eighteen inches on each side of the rails. However, it reasoned that, in limited instances, the City may be held liable for maintenance and repair of the same. The trial court noted that, similar to Yackobovitz, the City's conduct estopped it from asserting liability against SEPTA because the City undertook SEPTA's maintenance duties. The trial court clarified that it did not determine that the Restatement imposed a new duty on the City; rather, it explained that the City was estopped from shielding itself from liability because it performed a voluntary undertaking when it received a complaint regarding an alleged defect within SEPTA's scope of responsibility, failed to notify SEPTA of the same, and negligently repaired the defect.

         Next, the trial court concluded that its decision to deny the City's motion for entry of judgment regarding its crossclaim against SEPTA was proper because, although the City asserted a crossclaim in its pleadings, it failed to present any evidence at trial regarding an indemnification agreement with SEPTA and delayed until post-trial motions to introduce the lease-leaseback agreement and relevant indemnification provision.

         Trial Court's Analysis of SEPTA's Post-Trial Motion

         The trial court reasoned that its determination to deny SEPTA's post-trial motion for a new trial and judgment n.o.v. was proper because Lacava presented evidence of a defect in SEPTA's property that constituted a dangerous condition of which SEPTA had either constructive or actual notice sufficient to fall within the real estate exception to sovereign immunity. Considering this evidence in the light most favorable to Lacava, the trial court determined that judgment n.o.v. was improper and the jury's verdict was not so contrary to the weight of evidence as to shock the conscious such that a new trial is warranted.[7]

         Next, the trial court determined that it properly charged the jury with an adverse inference instruction because testimony was produced at trial indicating that there were missing documents related to road work completed near the site of the accident.[8] According to the trial court, because the testimony indicated that either the City or SEPTA completed the relevant repair work, it was the normal practice of both entities to document such work, and SEPTA would have control over these documents and it would be in SEPTA's interest to produce the same, the adverse instruction was proper and it was within the trial court's discretion to instruct the jury regarding the same. The trial court also reasoned that special interrogatories on the verdict slip were unnecessary because the issues before the jury were not lengthy or complex.

         Trial Court's Analysis of Lacava's Post-Trial Motion

         The trial court noted that it has broad discretion to deny or grant a request to amend a complaint. Accordingly, the trial court determined that an amendment to the complaint would be futile because SEPTA is a Commonwealth agency and, therefore, is immune from punitive damages. Similarly, the trial court reasoned that leave to amend to include civil rights violations was not warranted because Lacava could not establish a prima facie federal civil rights claim, and a state civil rights claim was barred by immunity.


         I. The City's Argument that Lacava failed to establish an exception to governmental immunity under the "streets" exception

         "This Court's standard of review from a trial court's order denying a litigant's motion for J.N.O.V. is limited to determining whether the trial court abused its discretion or erred as a matter of law. Additionally, we must view the record in the light most favorable to the verdict winner, giving him every reasonable inference." Hall v. Kiger, 795 A.2d 497, 499 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002) (citations omitted). "[T]he entry of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict . . . is a drastic remedy. A court cannot lightly ignore the findings of a duly selected jury." Atwell v. Beckwith Machinery Company, 872 A.2d 1216, 1221 (Pa. Super. 2005) (quotations and citation omitted).

         Section 8542(a) of the Judicial Code provides that a local agency[9] shall be liable for damages if: (1) the damages would be recoverable under common law or a statute creating a cause of action if caused by a person without immunity; (2) the injury was caused by a local agency or an employee thereof; and (3) the negligent act falls within an exception enumerated in section 8542(b) of the Judicial Code. 42 Pa. C.S. §8542(a).

         Section 8542(b)(6)(i) of the Judicial Code states that liability may be imposed on a local agency for the following:

(6) Streets.--
(i) A dangerous condition of streets owned by the local agency, except that the claimant to recover must establish that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred and that the local agency had actual notice or could reasonably be charged with notice under the circumstances of the dangerous condition at a ...

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