A public vehicle doesn't have to be in motion for a government entity to be liable if someone is hurt or killed by it, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided.
The Aug. 21 ruling shifted a 30-year standard that a public entity could be sued over a vehicle crash only if the vehicle was being driven at the time of the incident.
"If a car is parked illegally on a road, and you hit it, before, you couldn't bring suit against that person, and now you can," said Michael Shaffer, who brought the case on behalf of the family of a man killed under those circumstances. "It's changed the entire landscape of what plaintiffs are going to argue now."
Edwin Omar Medina-Flores, a contractor with the private firm Metra, died in a ditch Aug. 15, 2012, while doing work contracted by the Chester Water Authority. A CWA inspector parked a truck near him, with at least a portion of the vehicle protruding illegally into a lane of travel on Kerlin Road in Chester with its engine running.
A vehicle traveling on Kerlin hit that truck, pushing it into the inspector who parked the truck, causing injuries to him, and then hit Medina-Flores while he was still in the ditch, killing him.
Public entities can be liable for crashes involving one of their vehicles if the vehicle is in operation, but Medina-Flores' family's efforts to sue CWA over his death were blocked by Pennsylvania courts' definition of what was considered "in operation."
Before last week's decision, someone had to be in the act of driving the vehicle for there to be the possibility of liability. Commonwealth Court upheld that definition in Medina-Flores' case, leading to an appeal that rose to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that even how a vehicle is parked falls under the umbrella of operation.
The decision will affect government entities throughout the state, said Scott Gottel, who is representing CWA. "It's just now a change that will have to be taken into consideration," he said.
The decision allows Shaffer to pursue a claim against the CWA to determine whether there was negligence that caused Medina-Flores' death.
"It's by no means a concluded matter at this point," Gottel said.