Real Property Exception to Governmental Immunity

Brewington v. Phila. Sch. Dist.,149 A.3d 901(Pa. Cmwlth. 2016) appeal docket 23 EAP 2017

Plaintiff elementary school student was injured during gym class while he and other children were engaged in a relay race whose boundaries were concrete walls at either end of the school’s gym.  The student testified in his deposition that: “I was running too fast and I couldn’t stop and I tripped and fell. . . . And hit my head on the wall. . . . I fell to the ground and blacked out . . . blood ran all the way down my face.”  Slip op. at 2. The trial court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment on grounds that the real property exception to governmental immunity does not apply.  Commonwealth Court en banc, after reviewing the case law related to the real property exception, overruled its prior holding in Rieger v. Altoona Area School District, 768 A.2d 912 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2001), and reversed the grant of summary judgment.

The background, as recited in the Commonwealth Court’s opinion, is that in Singer v. School District of Philadelphia, 513 A.2d 1108 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1986), the court reversed a grant of judgment on the pleadings on immunity grounds where a student gymnast who was performing a stunt over a vaulting horse in his school’s gymnasium fell and broke his elbow when he missed a mat and landed on the hardwood floor. As the court there explained:

Our review of the complaint reveals that it alleges negligence concerning the care, custody and control of the landing surface around the vaulting horse. A necessary element of a gymnasium’s hardwood floor, which is regularly used as a gymnastic stunt area is sufficient matting protection to ensure safe landing by the students. Since proper gym floor matting is an essential safety element of a gymnasium floor being utilized for a vaulting stunt, it is an aspect within the District’s care, custody and control of its real property, subject to the real property exception.

Singer at 1109-10.

The Commonwealth Court followed its approach in Singer in numerous subsequent cases, until the Supreme Court decided Blocker v. City of Philadelphia, 763 A.2d 373 (Pa. 2000).

Blocker involved a claim against the City arising from the collapse of a bleacher at a concert in a City park.  The Commonwealth Court held there that the trial court had improvidently dismissed the plaintiff’s suit on immunity grounds because even though the bleacher was not affixed to the realty, a question of fact remained whether the City intended it to be part of the realty; the Supreme Court reversed on the narrow ground that “a chattel that is not affixed to realty remains personalty; only where personalty has been attached to realty does the parties’ intent become relevant.” 763 A.2d at 375.

Thereafter, in Rieger, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the narrow holding in Blocker, that a chattel not attached to realty remains personalty, had implicitly overruled Singer’s holding that use of mats for safety purposes constituted an “aspect of the District’s care, custody and control of its real property.”

In revisiting the real property exception under the facts of the present claim against the Philadelphia School District, the Commonwealth Court overruled Rieger, and concluded:

[W]e hold that where a complaint includes specific allegations that a plaintiff’s injuries resulted from negligence in the defendant’s care, custody, or control of real property, neither the Supreme Court’s decision in Blocker nor this Court’s decision in Rieger precludes a determination that the real property exception may apply. Consequently, we reaffirm our decision in Singer and overrule Rieger as a misinterpretation of Singer and a misapplication of Blocker.

Slip op. at 16.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to decide, as framed by the School District:

(1) Whether the Commonwealth Court’s conclusion that the alleged negligence in this case concerned real property impermissibly broadens the real property exception and requires school districts to take unreasonable steps (and steps the court does not specify) to protect themselves from liability?

(2) Whether [Respondents’] claim of a defect in the real property is properly construed as a claim of negligent supervision when the actual negligence involved, if any, pertained to the supervision of students and was not related to real property?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.