The gurgling coming from the basement was a sure sign something wasn’t right. And by the time three Allentown families found out about the disgusting mess coming from their basements, nearly $50,000 in damage had already been done.
Back in May, the three families found sewage spilling from the drains in their basement. It was the result of tree roots and grease clogging up a sewage main that
was supposedly under the supervision of the Lehigh County Authority. In the years immediately before, the main was the city’s responsibility. But the Lehigh County Authority assumed responsibility in August 2013 when it leased the city’s water and sewage system. And maintenance records of that particular main seemed to be unavailable following the transition.
To make matters worse, the Lehigh County Authority’s insurer cited the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Torts Claim Act in denying any repayment for the damage. The homeowners, all of whom who are in their seventies and eighties and have lived in their homes since the 1960s, had hoped the Authority would pay for its negligence that caused a total of approximately $50,000 in damage. But so far, they were getting absolutely nothing because of a law many consider a virtual “get-out-of-jail-free card” for city governments and their agencies.
The Law Protects State and Local Agencies – With Some Exceptions
Two important laws in the Commonwealth generally bar recovery for tortious acts committed by the government or its employees. The Sovereign Immunity Act protects the Commonwealth and its employees from a lawsuit. The counterpart for local municipalities is the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act. But both statutes have narrowly-construed exceptions where sovereign immunity would not apply. For the Sovereign Immunity Act, the exceptions include the following:
- Operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party
- Acts of Commonwealth health care employees employed by its medical facilities or a Commonwealth party who is a doctor, dentist, nurse or related health care personnel
- Care, custody, or control of personal property in the possession or control of Commonwealth parties
- Dangerous conditions from the Commonwealth’s real estate, including highways and sidewalks
- Dangerous conditions created by potholes and sinkholes on the Commonwealth highways
- Care, custody or control of animals in the possession or control of a Commonwealth party such as police dogs and horses
- Liquor store sales by employees of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board “if such sale is made to any minor, or to any person visibly intoxicated, or to any insane person, or to any person known as an habitual drunkard, or of known intemperate habit”
- Acts of members of the Pennsylvania military forces
- Liability from a vaccine that is not manufactured in Pennsylvania but whose responsibility has been taken by the Commonwealth
The Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, which prohibits suits against local municipalities, also has its set of exceptions which include the following:
- Operation of a motor vehicle by a local agency
- Care, custody or control of personal property of others in the possession or control of the local agency
- Care, custody or control of real property in the possession of the local agency
- Care, custody or control of trees, traffic controls and street lighting, which create a dangerous condition
- Dangerous conditions of utility service facilities
- Dangerous condition of streets
- Dangerous condition of sidewalks
- Care, custody, or control of animals
How Much Can You Collect From Local or State Governments?
The Sovereign Immunity Act limits recovery against the Commonwealth to a maximum of $250,000 in favor of any single plaintiff or $1,000,000 in the aggregate. The law allows five types of damages: past and future loss of earnings and earning capacity, pain and suffering, medical and dental expenses, loss of consortium, and property losses (but not including property losses from dangerous conditions created by potholes and sinkholes on the Commonwealth’s highways).
The Political Subdivision Torts Claims Act limits the damages recoverable against a local agency to a maximum of $500,000 either by a single plaintiff or in the aggregate. It allows the same types of damages as the Sovereign Immunity Act but specifies one important difference when it comes to damages for pain and suffering. Pain and suffering damages will be awarded only for death or for cases of “permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement, or permanent dismemberment where the medical and dental expenses are in excess of $1,500.” Additionally, the Political Subdivision Torts Claims Act specifies any insurance recovery – if the plaintiff has insurance for damages – must be deducted from any awards.
How We Can Help
Torts committed by state and local governments and their employees are not unusual. And trying to recover from them can be difficult because they are protected by law. Additionally, the law can be confusing, constantly changing, and filled with a few hard-to-notice words that can doom any chance of recovery from state and local governments, especially when you don’t have a lawyer. If you suffer an injury or property damage involving the State or its political subdivisions such as the City of Philadelphia, the highly qualified attorneys at Stampone Law can help you.