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Involuntary Movement of a Vehicle can Constitute the “Operation” of a Motor Vehicle.

Involuntary Movement of a Vehicle can Constitute the “Operation” of a Motor Vehicle.

In Balentine v. Chester Water Authority, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth Court erred in its application of the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity under 42 Pa. C.S.A. Section 8542(b)(1).

Balentine was a contractor hired by Chester to rehabilitate a section of a water distribution system that was on the side of a two-lane road. Chester’s water authority inspector drove up to Balentine’s work site and parked his vehicle off to the side of the road. Thereafter, a third vehicle struck the inspector’s parked vehicle propelling it into Balentine and killing him.

The trial court dismissed the governmental defendants holding that neither the motor vehicle exception nor the traffic control device exception to governmental immunity set forth in the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act applied. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the inspector’s vehicle was no longer in “operation” when the accident occurred; and therefore, the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity did not apply.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the word “operation” was not defined in the Tort Claims Act. However, the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity only referred to “operation,” and not to “motion” of a vehicle. Based on this language, Pennsylvania courts had routinely granted immunity in cases involving stopped/parked vehicles.

In overruling decades of precedent, the Supreme Court held that where a government vehicle obstructs a roadway, and absent evidence to the contrary, it can be reasonably inferred that a government agent “operated” the vehicle to arrive at that position, the Immunity exception applies. The Court reasoned that if it could be established that the injury was caused by an illegally parked government vehicle, the government could not avoid liability simply because the vehicle was not in motion at the time of the injury.

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