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Unpadded Gym Wall is Exception to PA Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act

Unpadded Gym Wall is Exception to PA Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act

Recently, in Brewington v. Walter G. Smith Elementary School, et al., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the lack of padding of a gym wall may constitute negligence in the care, custody, and control of real property, and, thus, falls within the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act’s (“Act”), real estate exception.

On May 9, 2012, nine-year-old Jarrett Brewington sustained a significant head injury during a gym-class relay race when he tripped and was propelled head first into a concrete wall. Jarrett was diagnosed with a concussion; he missed almost two months’ of school and continued to experience headaches and memory problems years later.

Jarrett’s mother, Syeta Brewington, sued Walter G. Smith Elementary School and the School District of Philadelphia (collectively, the “School”) claiming that Jarrett’s injuries occurred because the School allowed a defective and dangerous condition of the premises, i.e. concrete and un-padded gym wall. In response, the School claimed that it was immune from suit based on the defense of governmental immunity.

The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (“Act”), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8541 et seq., grants governmental immunity from tort liability to local political subdivisions, including public schools. However, there is, among others, a real property exception to governmental immunity ― and, in particular, whether the absence of padding on a gym wall, into which a student ran during gym class, causing injury, falls within the exception. 

The trial court granted the school’s motion for summary judgment, finding that padding was personal property, not real property; and, that the claim of an unsafe concrete wall was a design defect case, and did not fall under Ms. Brewington’s negligence claim pursuant to Rieger v. Altoona Area School District (Pa. Cmwlth. 2001). An en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court reversed, holding that the Act’s real property exception, applies to a governmental agency’s negligence in the care, custody, and control of real property that rendered the property unsafe for its intended and foreseeable use fall within the real property exception to governmental immunity.

The Commonwealth Court acknowledged Rieger, and, the Supreme Court case of Blocker v. City of Philadelphia, which held that chattel that is not affixed to real property, is personal. However, it relied on Singer v. School Dist. of Philadelphia (Pa. Cmwlth. 1986), wherein the Act’s real estate exception applied to a gymnast’s fall on an un-padded floor. In Singer, the Court held that while the padding was personal property, the floor, which caused the injury was real property. The Commonwealth Court concluded that Rieger “misconstrued Blocker as overruling Singer” and misconstrued Singer as “holding that personalty placed on real property to render it safe for its intended use is considered to be real property for purposes of governmental immunity.”

After an extensive analysis, the Supreme Court agreed the Commonwealth Court’s analysis and found that the unpadded wall directly caused Jarrett’s injuries, and that the wall constitutes real property. For those reasons set the Court held that the lack of padding of a gym wall may constitute negligence in the care, custody, and control of real property, and, thus, falls within the Act’s real estate exception.

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