Pennsylvania Supreme Court Invalidates City of Philadelphia’s Exculpatory Release
Anthony Degliomini participated in the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies Charity Bike Ride, a twenty-mile ride along a designated route through the streets of Philadelphia. During the Bike Ride, Degliomini crashed into an unmarked and un-barricaded sinkhole, which measured sixteen square feet in area and six inches deep. As a result, Degliomini suffered severe and extensive injuries, including spinal cord injuries leading to incomplete quadriplegia, and multiple bone fractures which required surgical procedures and extensive and ongoing medical treatment.
Degliomini and his wife, Karen Degliomini (plaintiffs/appellants), filed a negligence action against the City of Philadelphia (the City), event planner ESM Productions, and several other defendants. The City sought to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims against the City due to governmental immunity pursuant to the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§8541-8564 (Tort Claims Act), and to bar appellants’ claims of negligence on the basis of the 2015 Phillies Charities Bike Ride Release (the Release), an exculpatory contract prepared by ESM Productions and signed by Mr. Degliomini. The Release states, in relevant part:
I know that participating in an organized bike ride such as the 2015 Phillies Charities Bike Ride is a potentially hazardous activity…I also assume any and all other risks associated with participating in the event, including but not limited to falls; contact with other participants; the effects of the weather; the condition of the roads; and unsafe actions by other riders, drivers, or non-participants. All such risks being known and appreciated by me, and in consideration of the acceptance of my entry fee, I hereby…promise not to sue and I release and discharge The Phillies,…the City of Philadelphia…,ESM Productions…, from any and all claims of liability for death, personal injury, other adverse health consequence, theft or loss of property or property damage of any kind or nature whatsoever arising out of, or in the course of, my participation in the event even if caused by the negligence of any of the Releasees.
Plaintiffs argued the City was not entitled to statutory immunity because The Tort Claims Act provides for the imposition of liability for dangerous conditions on City-owned streets. 42 Pa.C.S. §8542(b)(6)(i). Plaintiffs argued, inter alia, the Release was unenforceable because it violates public policy by improperly immunizing the City from any consequence of breaching its duty of public safety imposed by the Home Rule Charter. Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
The Department of Streets shall have the power and its duty shall be to perform the following functions: (a) City Streets. It shall . . . repair and maintain: (1) City streets, which shall include highways, roads, streets, alleys . . . owned, controlled or operated by the City or designated in accordance with law as streets of the City; * * * Philadelphia Home Rule Charter §5-500(a)(1).
The trial court invalidated the Release as it violated public policy by exculpating the City from liability for conduct that breaches its exclusive duty to the public set forth in the Home Rule Charter. At trial, evidence was introduced to show that the sink hole existed approximately eight months prior to the Bike Ride, and that the City had knowledge of the sinkhole as it had previously applied patching material to fill it months prior to the Bike Ride, but did not block the area or complete the repair to the subterranean void causing the pavement to sink. The jury concluded the City was negligent and awarded $3,086,833.19 in damages to Mr. Degliomini and $100,000 to Mrs. Degliomini for her loss of consortium.
A three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court reversed. Finding that Pennsylvania courts have consistently upheld exculpatory releases pertaining to recreational activities as non-violative of public policy, and therefore valid and enforceable. Rather than considering Section 5-500 of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter as establishing a mandatory duty, the panel regarded it instead as an “organizational section” mandating the creation of the Department of Streets to perform certain functions, but providing no standard of care or guidelines for how the Department must accomplish its road repair duties; thus, the panel reasoned the City’s street maintenance obligation under the Charter was no different than any common law duty of reasonable care, which can be waived via a valid release.
After an exhaustive review of Pennsylvania law, the Court determined that there is a dominant well-defined public interest in the maintenance and safe repair of dangerous conditions existing on government-owned streets, and the municipal owners are thus charged with a duty of public service to perform such maintenance and repairs as a matter of necessity to members of the public. The Court emphasized that The Tort Claims Act expressly permits claims against the City for improper maintenance of city streets. Therefore, the Court held it was contrary to public policy to enforce an exculpatory contract immunizing the City from its essential duty of public service. The Court reasoned that any other application of the Release would elevate the City’s private exculpatory contract over the public duties assigned to it and the authority afforded to it by the General Assembly, and would jeopardize the health, safety and welfare of the public at large.