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Don’t Forget to Turn On the Lights . . . PA Supreme Court Highlights New Exception to Sovereign Immunity

May 6, 2021

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In an April 28, 2021 opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania cannot claim sovereign immunity where a dangerous condition, caused by poor lighting, exists on its property. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Wise-v.-Huntingdon-County-Housing-Development-Corporation-et-al..pdf">Wise v. Huntingdon County Housing Development Corporation, et al.</a> </em>overturned a Commonwealth Court’s contrary decision.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Plaintiff, Shannon Wise, filed a negligence action against the County Housing Authority claiming she tripped and fell because of “insufficient lighting.” Defendants filed motions for summary judgment, arguing that sovereign immunity barred Wise’s claims. Defendants conceded in their motions for summary judgment that the only potentially applicable exception to sovereign immunity was the “dangerous condition” exception, where the State will not be immune from liability when a dangerous condition originates from its property. Defendants argued further that because there was no defect in the sidewalk, no dangerous condition derived from their property, and therefore, Wise’s claims were barred. Defendants argued that the poor lighting was simply a result of nighttime darkness. However, the court saw things differently.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the “dangerous exception” to sovereign immunity applied because the poor lighting, caused in part by certain placement of a pole by the State, derived from State property and was not just typical nighttime darkness. The Court reasoned that for the “dangerous exception” to apply, the condition need not be on State property; rather, it need only be contiguous to State property and the State need to have known, or should have known, of its existence. It focused on the exception’s requirement that the condition derive from State property. Here, the poorly lit sidewalk (dangerous condition) derived from the State’s poor placement of the outdoor lighting fixtures. As such, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court conducted a more expansive reading of the exceptions to sovereign immunity, where a dangerous condition need not be clearly connected to the land itself.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to John Lang for his contribution to this post.  Should you have questions, please feel free to contact <a href="mailto:tbracken@wcmlaw.com">Tom Bracken</a>.</p>

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