Governmental immunity is a widely adopted doctrine across all levels of government. It extends immunity for claims in tort liability actions involving injuries that occur due to the negligence of a governmental entity or employee. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court will hear a case where a school student was injured after colliding into a wall in the school gymnasium that was not fitted with the padded mats that are commonly used for protection. The question is whether the lower court too broadly applied the real property exception in allowing for the suit. Jarrett Brewington (age 9) was a former student at Walter G. Smith Elementary that was running a relay when he suffered a concussion after tripping and crashing into a wall. The court found that the real property exception in the Pennsylvania Tort Claims Act relative to governmental immunity would apply.
Brewington was temporarily knocked unconscious and bled significantly as emergency responders were contacted. He was diagnosed with a concussion and missed the remainder of the school year. The following year, he struggled with poor memory and headaches, leading the family to file a civil suit. Common Pleas Judge Karen Shreeves-Johns accepted the district’s summary judgment motion, ruling that the exception for real property of government immunity would not apply. Her decision was largely based on the case of Rieger v. Altoona Schools District.
In Rieger, a cheerleader fell during practice on the hard floor that would ordinarily have had mats and incurred injuries. The Commonwealth Court determined that the safety mats weren’t real property, or affixed to real property, thus the exception was not applicable. Further, in Blocker v. City of Philadelphia, an injury occurred after a bleacher collapsed at a city-owned venue during a concert. The ruling by the Supreme Court here, was that this dealt with personal property since the bleachers were not attached to real property. Meanwhile, Brewington’s suit proceeded on appeal and the Commonwealth Court reversed Shreeves-Johns’ decision. Judge Michael H. Wojcik explained that plaintiffs must prove the injury resulted from a hazardous condition that existed in the custody and control of real property. Wojcik stated the exception applies to that which is under the control and possession of the governmental unit and is based on negligence.
When the common law guidelines for government immunity were replaced by statute, the following exceptions to governmental immunity included:
- Motor vehicle liability
- Personal property under custody or control
- Real property
- Trees, traffic signals and lighting
- Site of utility service
- Animals under custody or control
The real property exception does not make governmental entities liable for those who are knowingly trespassing. State statutes do not apply to basic civil rights guaranteed federally. We will await the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Brewington case.