In this appeal out of Berks County, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to construe the language of the utility service facilities exception (“Utility Exception”) to governmental immunity contained in the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (“Tort Claims Act”). Finding the Commonwealth Court erred by not applying the Utility Exception, the Court reversed.

Metropolitan Edison Company (“Met-Ed”) provides electricity service to residents of the City of Reading (the “City”) and surrounding areas. Met–Ed’s electrical wires are buried in the City’s rights-of-way in concrete “conduit banks.” City workers, excavating a site to repair a sewer main, failed to install shoring to support an adjacent Met-Ed conduit bank, ultimately resulting in the conduit bank fully collapsing. The need to shore the conduit bank had been brought to the attention of City officials several days before the collapse occurred. Met-Ed filed suit against the City alleging negligence and seeking $53,000 in damages. The City asserted it was immune from liability under the Tort Claims Act. Met–Ed responded by invoking the Utility Exception to the Tort Claims Act, which imposes liability on a local agency if “the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred and that the local agency had actual notice or could reasonably be charged with notice under the circumstance of the dangerous condition at a sufficient time prior to the event to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(5). The Court of Common Pleas of Berks County concluded the record raised questions of fact concerning whether the City was immune from suit, and denied the City’s summary judgment motion. The City appealed, challenging the trial court’s conclusion that the Utility Exception applied. The Commonwealth Court reversed, agreeing with the City that it was immune. The Commonwealth Court concluded the dangerous condition that resulted in Met-Ed’s damages had not originated from the City’s sewer system facilities, but instead had originated from the City’s negligent excavation of the material supporting the conduit bank. In the Commonwealth Court’s opinion, if a local agency or its employees create a dangerous condition of a utility service facility, the Utility Exception did not apply.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocator, and reversed. The Court found the Commonwealth Court had erred by finding the Utility Exception was inapplicable because the City’s employees had created the dangerous condition by their negligent excavation. Rather, the Court reasoned, the negligent act necessary to trigger the Utility Exception was the failure of the City to remediate the dangerous condition of which it had notice. The focus, the Court opined, must be on whether the injuries alleged were caused by a dangerous condition that derived from, originated from, or had its source in the local agency’s utility service facility and located within its right-of-way; not on the genesis of the dangerous condition. The Court concluded that Met–Ed’s evidence had established that the City had sufficient advance notice of the dangerous condition and the foreseeable risks presented by those dangerous conditions to permit it to take timely action to prevent it. As the City had failed to remediate the dangerous condition, it could be held liable for Met–Ed’s resulting injuries.

Click here to read: Metropolitan Edison v. City of Reading, 58 MAP 2016 (Pa. Jun. 20, 2017).

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