Defendant’s Preliminary Objections Send Plaintiff’s Case Off the Rails (PA)
In Pennsylvania, preliminary objections can be an effective procedural tool that defense counsel can utilize to frame, limit the scope of, or even dismiss a case altogether. For example, in Strasburg Scooters v. Strasburg Rail Road Inc., defendant Strasburg Rail Road successfully raised preliminary objections to challenge the Pennsylvania state court’s subject matter jurisdiction over a dispute regarding use of land abutting a railroad.
The action involved a dispute between Strasburg Scooters, a company that provides recreational guided scooter rides through Lancaster County; and Strasburg Rail Road, a corporation that provides recreational train rides as well as freight services. The two companies share ‘side tracks’ along a common area of railroad tracks in order to perform their respective recreational services. Recently, Scooters filed a declaratory judgment action requesting the court to declare that Rail Road had abandoned the side tracks so that Scooters could operate its guided scooter tours uninfringed. Scooters alleged that Rail Road infringed upon its rights by parking railroad cars on the side tracks, damaging Scooters’ property/equipment along the tracks, and failing to notify Scooters regarding Rail Road’s use of the right-of-way. Scooters’ request was based on their argument that Rail Road had abandoned its original right-of-way that was established in 1897 for freight hauling services, because Rail Road has since changed its business from freight hauling to pleasure excursions.
In its preliminary objections to Scooters’ complaint, Rail Road argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the matter because, pursuant to the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995, the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) had exclusive jurisdiction over the operation and abandonment of side tracks. The trial court agreed with Rail Road, and sustained the preliminary objections and dismissed Scooters’ complaint with prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. On appeal, the PA Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint, and also ruled sua sponte, that Scooters had failed to name an indispensable party because they did not name the owner of the real property as a defendant in the case.
In its opinion, the Superior Court explained that lack of subject matter jurisdiction is fatal at any stage of the proceedings and can be raised at any time by any party, or by the court sua sponte, as it was in this case. Although the particular fact pattern of this case is most applicable to areas of law that are preempted by federal statute, the procedural posture serves as a valuable reminder that preliminary objections can provide a powerful and useful mechanism for defendants in Pennsylvania tort actions to challenge matters of law in plaintiff’s complaint prior to the filing of an answer or other responsive pleading. Preliminary objections can also ‘flag’ certain issues for the court to set the stage for further challenges later on in the proceedings.
Thank you to Greg Herrold for his contribution to this post. Please email Vito A. Pinto with any questions.