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When Can I Sue SEPTA? Sovereign Immunity and SEPTA

  • Published: September 9, 2017
When Can I Sue SEPTA? Sovereign Immunity and SEPTA

It may go without saying, but car and bus accidents are very common. Across the country, thousands of accidents involving automobiles will occur every year. Sometimes these accidents are caused by government-owned and operated vehicles i.e. busses and public transportation especially in Philadelphia, accidents involving SEPTA busses are common. Unfortunately, suing SEPTA is not straightforward as it may seem and you need an experienced attorney who has experience with these lawsuits.

What is Sovereign Immunity?

There is an old saying that “You can’t sue the King.” For the most part, this is true. Typically, an individual cannot sue the government for an alleged wrong that was committed against them, by the government. This is known as sovereign immunity. Pennsylvania has codified this rule under 1 Pa C.S.A. § 2310 which gives the Commonwealth and its officials and employees “who are acting in the scope of their duties” sovereign and official immunity. However, there are exceptions to this. In Pennsylvania, 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8522 lists the exceptions to sovereign immunity. One of the more crucial exceptions is the Vehicle Liability exception (42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8522(b)(1)).

Does SEPTA Qualify for Sovereign Immunity?

Over the years, there have been challenges to whether SEPTA is entitled to sovereign immunity. Attorneys would argue that because SEPTA is concentrated in Southeastern Pennsylvania and it sounds like a local agency, rather than a Commonwealth agency, then it should not be entitled to sovereign immunity (see Marshall v. Port Authority of Allegheny Cty, 586 A.2d 931 (Pa. 1990)). However, that issue was put to rest in Muldrow v. Southeastern Transp. Authority, 88 A.3d 269, 273 (Pa Commw. Ct. 2014) where the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that SEPTA is a Commonwealth agency. Nonetheless, because of 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8522, if a SEPTA bus is negligent (while in operation, a point which will be discussed infra) and causes an accident you can sue SEPTA and it cannot assert sovereign immunity as a defense. However, be forewarned that your damages would be capped at $250,000 (or potentially even less if there were multiple plaintiffs in the suit) because of 42 Pa C.S.A. § 8528.

Are There Instances When I Cannot Sue SEPTA?

There are limitations and complexities to suing SEPTA for injuries. These complexities include: jerk and jolt, whether the bus in is motion, and underinsurance claims when someone else strikes a SEPTA vehicle you are a passenger in. Suppose you are a passenger on a SEPTA bus and you slip over some ice that formed in the entry well of the bus while the bus was stationary. You then get injured because of this fall and incur medical expenses. Would you be able to sue then? According to Muldrow, the answer is no. In Muldrow, the plaintiff, while disembarking from a SEPTA bus, slipped on some ice that accumulated on the bus and injured her neck, back, right leg, and right knee. Id. The Court held that because the bus was not in motion at the time of the accident, SEPTA was entitled to sovereign immunity. Id. at 274.

In reaching their holding, the Muldrow Court focused on the language of 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8522(b)(1) which has the word “operation” in it. Further, the Muldrow Court cited a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case (Love v. City of Philadelphia, 543 A.2d 531, (Pa. 1988)) which held “[g]etting into or alighting from a vehicle are merely acts ancillary to the actual operation of the vehicle.” As such, because the bus was not in “operation” at the time of the accident, Ms. Muldrow was not entitled to relief.

It is important to note that “operation” does not necessarily mean that vehicle has to be moving. For example, in Bottoms v. Southeastern Transp. Authority, 805 A.2d 47, 50 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2002) suggested that a moving part of a vehicle (i.e. a bus door) would be sufficient for purposes of operation (see also Royal v. Southeastern Transp. Authority, 10 A.3d 927, 930 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2010) holding that the movement of a part or attachment may be sufficient for purposes of operation). As such, you still might have a viable claim against SEPTA even if your claim does not involve an automobile accident.

You Need an Experienced Trial Attorney If You Were Injured by SEPTA

It is important to note that you can sue SEPTA for reasons other than automobile accidents (you can sue SEPTA for the conditions of the SEPTA property See Nardella v. Southeastern Transp Authority, 34 A.3d 300 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2011 (holding that SEPTA can be sued under the 42 Pa C.S.A. § 7522 (b)(3)). Timing is also very important. You have a very short time period (six months from when the incident took place) to put SEPTA on notice of your claim. As such, it is imperative that you have a skilled attorney who knows the law and will be able to fight your case. If you have been injured in an accident involving a SEPTA operated vehicle call Troy R. Crichton. Mr. Crichton has the legal experience and knowledge to litigate your case. You will have peace of mind knowing that your case is in good hands. Contact us today at (267) 225-3317 for a free legal consultation.

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