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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Broadens the Real Property Exception to the Immunity Provided by the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act

By: Julia Jacobelli

On December 28, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an opinion which expands on the definition of “real property,” for purposes of determining governmental immunity under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

In Brewington v. City of Philadelphia, Walter G. Smith Elementary School and The School District of Philadelphia, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversing the entry of Summary Judgment in favor of the School District. Plaintiff, Jarett Brewington (a minor) and his mother, Syeta Brewington, claimed that on May 9, 2012, Jarett was participating in a relay race during gym class at Walter G. Smith Elementary School when he tripped and fell, causing him to propel headfirst into a wall at the end of the gym. The wall was concrete, and not padded. As a result of his fall, minor plaintiff suffered a concussion, was absent from school for a period of time, and suffered headaches and memory issues.

Plaintiffs filed suit against the elementary school and the school district, alleging that the minor plaintiff was injured as a result of a defective and dangerous condition of the premises (the concrete wall), and that the school was negligent in having failed to install padded safety mats to cushion the wall. The School filed a motion for summary judgment asserting governmental immunity under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, which was granted by the trial court. However on appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the grant of summary judgment, concluding that the injuries to the minor plaintiff were caused by real property, and therefore the claims fell outside of the provision of immunity provided by the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

The School argued that it was entitled to immunity, because it was not engaged in an act that involved the care, custody, or control of real property, and that no act involving the care, custody or control of real property caused the injury to the minor plaintiff. The School further argued that the injury was caused by a teacher directing students to run toward a wall (negligent supervision) and the student tripping and falling. The School argued that there was no actual defect in the wall itself, and that the wall did what it was intended to do.

The School specifically cited to the Commonwealth Court’s prior decision of Rieger v. Altoona Area School District, which held that alleged negligence of a school in failing to place mats on a hardwood floor for cheerleading practice did not fall within the real property exception, as mats were not affixed to the real property (the floor) and therefore constituted personality. The School argued that plaintiffs’ contention that the concrete wall was defective in that it was not covered by mats or padding was analogous to the situation described in Rieger.

The Supreme Court rejected this analysis, and in so doing, “disapproved” of the decision reached in Rieger. Specifically, the Court held that the analysis of whether the real property exception applies to immunity centers on the …”cause of the injury, rather than the nature of the remedy that should have been provided.” The Supreme Court noted that in the case at issue, the cause of the injury was the unpadded concrete wall, and that the wall constitutes real property. Moreover, the Supreme Court concluded that the real property exception, by its “definitional terms,” includes a failure to provide safety features in situations where such a duty exists.

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