By: Roger D. Horgan
King! What King? There is no royalty in Pennsylvania, correct? No, there is not. However, when it comes to claims against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, or its subsidiaries, our law harkens back to English law, making use of concepts from another age and another society.
Just as the King and Queen in England were generally immune from suits, the Commonwealth, and its subsidiaries, are immune from suit unless for claims for which Pennsylvania has agreed to be liable. An injury victim can bring a claim against the Commonwealth or its subsidiaries only in certain, limited circumstances, and subject to limitations that would not apply to other defendants. Different rules apply depending on whether the claim is being brought against the Commonwealth itself or one of its statewide agencies (known as Commonwealth agencies), or one of its local subsidiaries such as a township or a borough (known as local agencies).
One of the important elements of bringing a claim against the Commonwealth or a local agency is that the normal two year statute of limitations is modified such that a victim must provide written notice to the Commonwealth or local agency in a specified form within 180 days of the accident. While suit need not be brought within 180 days, the victim will generally be precluded from bringing suit if proper written notice was provided. It is imperative that a person with a potential claim against a governmental agency promptly consult with a lawyer to determine whether a potential claim exists and comply with the many technical requirements involved in bringing such a claim.
Another important consideration is that the Commonwealth has limited the amount which it will be required to pay if found responsible for the accident. Claims against a Commonwealth agency are limited to $250,000 per person and no more than $1 million for any one accident. As to local agencies, the limit is $500,000 per accident. These limits can lead to incomplete compensation in cases involving extremely serious injuries, or numerous victims. In the recent case of Zauflik v. Pennsbury School District, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed that it was necessary to reduce a $14 million verdict to just $500,000. This was a tragic case in which a school bus went out of control and ran into 20 students. This was the result even though the school district had insurance covering claims up to $11 million. The Court recognized the apparent injustice of the result but concluded that any change in the law governing these cases must come from the Legislature.
These are but two examples of the many complexities involved in bringing an injury claim against the Commonwealth and local agencies. This is not an area of law in which an unrepresented victim can be expected to achieve a favorable result without a lawyer. If you have a claim against any person or entity that is in any way related to any part of the government please contact an attorney, and do so promptly.