Court: Authority not liable for injury

Resident claimed Huntingdon County Housing Authority responsible

The Pennsylvania Common­­­wealth Court has ruled in favor of the Huntingdon County Housing Authority in a lawsuit by a resident of the Chestnut Terrace housing complex who tripped and broke her ankle while on the property.

The resident, Sharon Wise, reported that on May 9, 2013, she was walking with her sister on a sidewalk, heading to her car in the parking lot.

Her attorney, Nathan M. Murawsky of Landsdale, described in a letter to the authority what occurred.

“The accident took place near midnight, and the outside lighting at the housing development (in Mount Union) was poor, if not non-existent.

“While my client attempted to stay on the sidewalk that night to get to her car, she simply could not see to delineate the sidewalk from the ground, hit the edge of the sidewalk with her foot and rolled her ankle, causing the fracture.”

The ensuing lawsuit brought by Wise raised a series of legal issues including whether the authority could be held responsible for her injury or whether the authority was protected from lawsuit by sovereign immunity.

Huntingdon County President Judge George N. Zanic eventually dismissed the lawsuit contending that the authority was covered by immunity, although there was legal precedent that inadequate lighting associated with a government-operated housing complex provided an exception to immunity.

A three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court ruled Wednesday that while the lighting on the authority premises may have been inadequate and the authority may have had a duty to illuminate a naturally dark exterior area, sovereign immunity bars commonwealth liability.

The opinion, written by Judge Anne E. Covey, explained that an exception to the immunity rule has to be derived from the property itself.

In the Wise case, the accident resulted from a natural condition — darkness.

Covey wrote, “Wise’s complaint is that the (government) failed to alter the natural state of nighttime darkness which, thereby, caused her fall.”

Wise, in her lawsuit, pointed out that there was a light pole on the property but its ability to illuminate the parking lot was blocked by a tree.

The Covey opinion stated, “Wise acknowledged that she saw no physical defect in the sidewalk. Contrary to Wise’s contention, the significantly distant pole light and the tree situated between the light pole and her fall location did not create the already existing darkness.”

“Given the Earth’s natural rotation from light to darkness, the alleged dangerous condition — darkness — did not derive, originate from or have as its source in the (government property),” the opinion stated.

Covey was joined in the opinion by judges Christine Fizzano Cannon and Ellen Ceisler.

The attorney for Wise had cited inadequate lighting as an exception to governmental immunity.

The prior court cases Murawsky referred to involved inadequate lighting in housing complexes operated by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

In one case, an 11-year-old tripped on debris and fell in an unlit stairwell.

The second incident also occurred in a stairwell in which the lights were out and that person fell due to debris and a defective railing.

Both of those cases involved inadequate lighting inside the housing complex and the appeals court stated liability would be a question for the jury.

Huntingdon County Judge Zanic concluded that for the immunity exception to be permitted, the lighting defect “must derive, originate or have its source as the Commonwealth reality itself.”

Wise, he said, “seeks to expand the real estate exception to encompass (outside) lighting, and we are not included to do so.”

The Commonwealth Court panel stated the authority’s failure to adequately light the sidewalk area during hours of darkness “did not create an artificial condition or defect of Commonwealth realty for which the authority could be held liable.”

Murawsky could not be reached for comment.

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