Student Who Lost Finger at Penn. School Can’t Sue District
A student in Pennsylvania who lost his finger in shop class cannot sue the school district, a panel of judges ruled. The district, as well as most other government entities, is immune from most negligence lawsuits under the state’s sovereign immunity statute.
Tyler Esh was using an electric grinder on a piece of steel in 2008 when he cut off a piece of his pinkie, which later resulted in amputation, according to the court opinion. In 2010, he launched a lawsuit against the Lancaster School District; however, his quest for recourse was stopped short due to the seemingly trivial fact that the grinder was not bolted to the floor in the shop classroom.
Had it been bolted, the plaintiff might have been able to meet an exception in the immunity statute for real property defects.
“Generally speaking, under Pennsylvania law, the state and local governmental agencies are immune from suits based on negligence liability,” says Bruce L. Baldwin, an attorney with Pennsylvania personal injury firm Wolf, Baldwin. “There are a few statutory exceptions to that immunity, and one of those exceptions relates to ‘the care, custody and control’ of real property in the possession of the state or local agency.”
The other main exception is motor vehicle accidents, and even within the exceptions damages are limited to $250,000. If a person is hurt through other types of government negligence, they’re on their own.
“If the grinder was permanently affixed to the floor, it would have been a fixture and thus part of the real estate,” Baldwin explains. “If it was not permanently affixed, it would not have been part of the real estate, and thus the case would not fall within the real estate exception to governmental immunity. No doubt, both parties argued this point vehemently because if the grinder is not a fixture, there is no case.”
It sounds counterintuitive that the district is less liable because they did not bolt down the grinder, which could be a safety issue, but the plaintiff didn’t assert that argument even though he had an expert testify that failure to bolt could be a Occupational Safety and Health Administration violation. “Esh failed to allege that his injury resulted from Defendants’ failure to attach the grinder to the floor, nor did he allege any OSHA violation,” the senior judge wrote.
Instead, Esh’s lawyers argued that the grinder counted as real property just based on its potential to be bolted down. However, the judges had ample precedent to cite to reject the claim. “[E]vidence of bolting alone is insufficient to support a conclusion that the School District intended the sander to be permanently affixed to the real estate; this is especially so where it is beyond dispute that such equipment is understandably safer if secured to the floor,” the opinion quoted from a previous, similar case.
It’s a harsh lesson in sovereign immunity laws — and one the plaintiff paid dearly to learn.