Immunity Law Won't Prevent Legal Action against School District
This past December a judge ruled that the state's governmental immunity laws will not prevent a lawsuit against the Cumberland Valley School District from moving forward. In 2006, James and Jean Hegarty's son was injured in a school bus accident when another student covered up the bus driver's eyes, causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle and hit a tree.
Cumberland Valley School District argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed under Pennsylvania's Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act. This state law provides immunity to local government agencies and their employees from certain personal injury and property damage claims. The judge, however, correctly ruled that the bus accident falls within one of the eight exceptions to the immunity law.
Pennsylvania's Government Immunity Law
The state immunity laws protect local government agencies and their employees from personal injury and property damage claims. To be protected, the act giving rise to the injury must have occurred during the scope of or in furtherance of the agency's official duties. For example, a municipal employee who is involved in a car accident after work cannot claim immunity against legal claims arising out of the accident.
The law, however, does not protect local government agencies from every personal injury or property damage claim. The law provides eight exceptions to the governmental immunity laws, including:
- Vehicle liability
- Care, custody or control of personal property
- Care, custody or control of real property
- Trees, traffic controls and street lighting
- Utility services facilities
- Care, custody and control of animals
For one of these exceptions to apply, the plaintiff must be able to prove:
- The injury was caused by the negligent acts of a local government agency or one of its employees who was acting within the scope of his or her official duties
- Damages ordinarily would be available to the plaintiff had he or she been injured by a non-governmental agency or employee
It is important to note that the employee's acts must have been negligent. The exceptions do not apply if the act was willful, intentional or criminal.
In the Hegarty case, the judge ruled that the vehicle exception applied to the school bus accident that harmed their child. Generally, for the vehicle exception to apply, the injured party must demonstrate that the vehicle was in operation (i.e. in motion) at the time of the injury and that a local government agency or one of its employees was in possession or control of the vehicle. Both of these elements existed in the Hegarty case - the school bus was moving at the time of the injury and it was operated by a driver employed by the school.
Pursing a Claim against the Government
Many people incorrectly assume that they cannot bring claims against the government. As the Hegarty case illustrates though, it is possible to bring a tort claim against a local government agency or one of its employees as long as one of the exceptions to the immunity rule applies.
However, there are special rules for pursuing government claims, including the notice requirements and statute of limitations. Normally, individuals have two years from the date of injury in the state of Pennsylvania to bring a claim for a personal injury. However, if the party causing the injury is a local government agency or employee, the injured person must provide notice to that agency within six months of the initial injury to preserve the claim. In some cases, the claim also must be filed with a court within the same six month time frame. If these filing deadlines are missed, then the injured person may be barred from bringing a claim.
Pennsylvania law also limits the type and amount of damages that can be awarded in tort actions against the government. For example, damages only can be awarded for pain and suffering in cases of death, permanent loss of bodily function, permanent disfigurement and/or permanent dismemberment when the plaintiff's medical expenses are greater than $1500.
These and other nuances of pursuing a tort claim against the government make it important to work with an attorney experienced in these types of claims. If you have been injured by the negligent acts of a local government employee or agency, take action now to preserve your legal rights. You have a limited amount of time to file your legal claims. An attorney experienced in handling tort actions against government agencies can help you determine whether your claim qualifies for an exception to the immunity laws.