Immunity under the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act absent “willful misconduct”
On August 19, 2015, in a personal injury action against three Philadelphia police officers, the jury returned a verdict finding one of the officers, defendant Peachey, committed the intentional torts of battery, assault, and false imprisonment/arrest, and awarded Plaintiff $33,700 in damages. The jury found the other officers not liable. After this verdict was returned, the trial court charged the jury with determining whether Peachey had committed willful misconduct in bringing about Cruz’s harm. The jury found no willful misconduct by Peachey, however the jury found that Peachey used excessive force in arresting Cruz without probable cause.
In a post-trial motion, Peachey requested the trial court enter judgment notwithstanding the verdict in his favor, arguing, as a matter of law, Peachey could not be liable for the intentional torts alleged where the jury found that he did not act with willful misconduct in bringing about Cruz’s harm. The trial court denied Peachey’s post-trial motion. According to the trial court, the jury’s finding that Peachey did not commit willful misconduct entitled Peachey to indemnification by the City of Philadelphia under the Tort Claims Act, but did not make Peachey immune from liability.
Peachey appealed the denial of his post-trial motion to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that absent a finding of willful misconduct, an employee has official immunity and has an entitlement to indemnity pursuant to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (Tort Claims Act), 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 8541-8564, which generally provides an employee of a local agency is liable for civil damages caused only to the same extent as his or her employer, for acts within the scope of his or her office or duties and subject Section 8550 of the Tort Claims Act related to “Willful Misconduct”, which provides:
In any action against a local agency or employee thereof for damages on account of an injury caused by the act of the employee in which it is judicially determined that the act of the employee caused the injury and that such act constituted a crime, actual fraud, actual malice or willful misconduct, the provisions of sections 8545 (relating to official liability generally), 8546 (relating to defense of official immunity), 8548 (relating to indemnity) and 8549 (relating to limitation on damages) shall not apply.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court affirmed. Citing to its previous en banc decision, the Commonwealth Court noted its interpretation of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision of Renk v. City of Pittsburgh, 641 A.2d 289 (Pa. 1994), as rejecting the notion that an intentional tort is synonymous with “willful misconduct”, instead finding that “willful misconduct” as used in 42 Pa. C.S. § 8550 means willful misconduct aforethought.
The Commonwealth Court disagreed with Peachey’s conclusion that Renk stands for the proposition that there is no liability without willful misconduct under the Torts Claim Act, instead finding:
The Supreme Court in Renk clearly recognized that a police officer may be held liable for the intentional torts of assault and battery, and therefore not immune from liability, where a jury has determined that the force used in making an arrest was unnecessary or excessive, notwithstanding that jury’s determination that the police officer did not intentionally use such unnecessary or excessive force. Renk, 641 A.2d at 293-4. Likewise, the Supreme Court in Renk acknowledged that a police officer may be held liable for false arrest/imprisonment, and therefore not immune from liability, where a jury has determined that the police officer lacked probable cause to make such arrest, notwithstanding that jury’s determination that the police officer did not deliberately make such arrest knowing that he lacked probable cause to do so. Id. Cruz contends, correctly, that the interrogatory presented to the jury regarding willful misconduct was issued for the sole purpose of determining whether Peachey might seek indemnification from the City of Philadelphia, and cannot be interpreted as a finding on the issue of immunity. As the Trial Court explained in its Rule 1925(a) Opinion, it purposely separated the group of key issues as to whether Cruz had proven that any of the defendant police officers had committed the intentional torts of assault, battery, false imprisonment and any appropriate damages from the issue of whether Peachey acted with willful misconduct in bringing about Cruz’s harm.
Based on Renk, the Commonwealth Court found no error in the trial court’s denial of Peachey’s post-trial motion, concluding:
that the jury determined that while Peachey intentionally struck and detained Cruz, he subjectively felt that he could do so under these circumstances. The jury, as trier of fact, was free to draw the conclusion that Peachey’s actions, regardless of his subjective belief, were not justifiable in the instant matter. One can have an honest belief that his actions are justified. It is, however, within the jury’s province to find that such actions were not justified, despite the actor’s belief to the contrary. In such situations, under Renk, the trier of fact can find the officer not immune, but nevertheless not so unjustified in his subjective belief as to lose his right to indemnification.
The Supreme Court issued an order granting allocator to determine the issue presented by the petitioner:
Did [the] Commonwealth Court err in holding that a jury’s finding of intentional tort liability was sufficient to vitiate Officer Peachey’s immunity under the Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act even though the jury found that he did not commit willful misconduct?