Municipal Authority Liability Under Tort Claims Act

October 22, 2019

In Falor v. Southwestern Pennsylvania Water Authority, No. 90 C.D. 2014 (October 9, 2014), a Commonwealth Court panel recently affirmed a trial court decision dismissing a claim for damages by Plaintiff Falor against Defendant Southwestern Pennsylvania Water Authority as barred by the Pennsylvania Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 8541-8542.

Falor owned a four-story commercial building.  Falor asked the Water Authority to shut-off water to the building.  The Water Authority sent an employee to the property to shut off the water.  The employee discovered the tap connecting the water main to Falor’s property also served another building next door.  The employee decided not to shut-off the water.  The Water Authority never informed Falor of the omission and also discontinued and closed her water account.  All other utilities were shut-off to the building and sometime during the winter, the pipes in Falor’s building burst causing significant damage to the building.

The Water Authority asserted the defense of governmental immunity under the Tort Claims Act.  Falor argued that the two-headed tap serving Falor’s property and the neighboring property was a “dangerous condition” falling within an exception to the Tort Claims Act.  The trial court rejected that argument and concluded that the Water Authority’s failure to shut-off the water and to inform Falor of that fact was the precise cause of the damage.  The Water Authority omission fell within the scope of the Tort Claims Act, so the trial court granted summary judgment to the Water Authority and dismissed the case.  The Commonwealth Court affirmed this holding.

On appeal, Falor also asserted the argument that the Water Authority’s actions fell within the “Utility Service Facilities” exception to the Tort Claims Act.  The Commonwealth Court followed several prior decisions in concluding again that “no dangerous condition” existed with respect to the utility facilities owned by the Water Authority.  The panel noted that the Water Authority’s tap functioned properly and delivered water to the property as intended.  Rather, it was the Water Authority’s negligent failure to shut-off the water at the tap and to tell Falor of its decision that resulted in harm to her property.  The appellate panel concluded, as did the trial court, that this omission by the Water Authority enjoys governmental immunity and does not fit within any exception to the Torts Claims Act.  The panel, likewise, rejected Falor’s arguments on appeal that the actions of the Water Authority constituted trespass and nuisance and that the Water Authority should be held strictly liable for its conduct.  For the same reasons as it affirmed the dismissal of Falor’s other arguments, the panel concluded that these additional torts simply do not fall within any exception to governmental immunity under the Tort Claims Act.

This claim further reinforces a municipal authority’s tort claim liability protection when exercising its governmental functions.  The case also reinforced the need for a municipal authority to address known dangerous conditions within its system to avoid an exception to governmental immunity for utility service facilities.

If you have any questions regarding this update, or any other municipal law matters, please contact Andrew, or Christian, by email or phone at (717) 845-1524.

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