The case of Brewington v. Philadelphia School District has reached the Supreme Court. The Commonwealth Court had allowed a Philadelphia Public School student’s family to pursue damages when a 9-year-old boy was injured after running into a concrete wall in a gymnasium that the plaintiff’s felt should have had protective wall padding.
A defense attorney says the intermediate court’s decision runs contrary to decades of court rulings. The court had reversed the lower court ruling that involved interpretation of the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act, which ordinarily shields entities such as public schools from claims of injury liability. The attorney explained that the student relay race, where the injury occurred, is not a qualifying exception that was based “out of the care, control or custody of real estate”.
Jarrett Brewington was a student at Walter G. Smith Elementary School in 2012 when he participated in a relay race in the school gymnasium. He tripped and fell, striking his head on a concrete wall, which was not covered with any of the padded material that is often seen in these settings. He incurred a concussion that caused him memory problems, headaches, and other problems that forced him to miss the remainder of the school year. Syeta, his mother, decided to pursue civil damages following the incident.
Trial Court & Questions
A trial court first considered the claim and ordered dismissal of the suit based on governmental immunity. The case was next appealed to the Commonwealth Court who found that the case was based on dangerous conditions relating to the care, custody, and control of the property. This court felt that the real property exception within the Pennsylvania Tort Claims Act was applicable. The key issues that the court was tasked with considering included:
- Was the real property exception improperly expanded in this case?
- Would such a ruling place an unreasonable burden on schools to avoid potential liabilities?
- Did the case truly involve a defect in real property, or was it based on negligent supervision of the students?
The majority of government entities are protected from civil liability by governmental immunity, which includes claims of tort liability for injuries due to negligence. Pennsylvania law states that courts must consider if the injury was caused by a party that is not entitled to immunity. Another consideration is whether the agency or employee was acting within the scope of their normal employment activities or duties.
Negligence & Real Property
Acts that are deemed as exceptions to immunity are those that constitute crimes, fraud, or that are conducted with willful intent or malice. The exception for real property applies when a dangerous condition exists involving the care, control, or custody of real property. The real property exception is not applicable when the injured party is trespassing on the real property under the control of the governmental entity. Real property does not include trees, traffic signals, traffic signs, utility sites (water, gas, etc.), or streets and sidewalks.
The defense is presenting several challenges to the prior court decision. They must determine if the wall is actually considered to be real property and if the absence of the padding was a failure to act. The court will clarify the scope of the Tort Claims Act and determine if the gym was actually in the care, custody, and control of the school. Lastly, they will consider whether the injury was a foreseeable result of the relay race that the plaintiff participated in.