The South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, also known as SEPTA, is a commonwealth (state) government entity. As a state government entity, SEPTA is immune from suit, pursuant to Pennsylvania's Sovereign Immunity Statute, 1 Pa.C.S. §2310. Fortunately, there are several exceptions to the rule of sovereign immunity and one of them involves motor vehicles. 42 Pa. C.S. § 8522(b)(1) holds that a commonwealth party, such as SEPTA, may be liable for injuries caused by the operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the commonwealth party. The term "motor vehicle" includes any vehicle which is self propelled and any attachment thereto, including vehicles operated by rail, through water or in the air.
The motor vehicle exception to sovereign immunity applies to injuries sustained on SEPTA buses, trolleys and trains, where SEPTA is the negligent party. However, it should be noted that exceptions to sovereign immunity are strictly interpreted by the court and so the exception is often restricted to the letter of the law. Consequently, for the motor vehicle exception the courts have held the language "caused by the operation of any vehicle" to limit the exception to injuries that occur while the vehicle is actually moving. Examples where the SEPTA vehicle is not moving and thus, the exception does not apply and an injured individual cannot pursue a personal injury claim are where a SEPTA bus driver stops too far away from the curb for a bus stop and a passenger stepping off the bus steps into a pot hole or is hit by another vehicle or where a passenger slips while entering or exiting a stopped SEPTA bus, trolley or train. If the SEPTA vehicle is stopped at the time of the injury, chances are the victim will not be able to pursue a personal injury claim against SEPTA. Where the SEPTA vehicle is moving at the time of the injury, such as during an accident between the SEPTA vehicle and another motor vehicle, the exception does apply and the victim can pursue a personal injury claim against SEPTA, as long as SEPTA was the negligent party.
Unlike claims against local government entities, such as the City of Philadelphia, claims against state government entities do not have any minimal injury requirement. As long as a SEPTA passenger's negligence claim meets the requirements of the motor vehicle exception to sovereign immunity, the passenger may pursue an injury claim regardless of how severe the injury turns out to be. While there is no minimum requirement for the injury, there is a maximum amount that SEPTA, like all state government entities, will pay regardless of how severe the injury is. Pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. §8528, the most SEPTA will pay an injured passenger is $250,000.
Payment of medical bills for injuries sustained while a passenger on a SEPTA bus is different than a claim for personal injuries due to negligence. When a SEPTA bus passenger is injured as a result of an accident, if that passenger is not an insured under any other automobile insurance policy in his or her household, then that passenger's medical bills will be paid by SEPTA, regardless of whether SEPTA was negligent or not. As an occupant of the SEPTA bus at the time of the accident, the passenger is entitled to payment of medical bills up to $5,000, if the passenger is not insured under any other automobile insurance policy.
Whenever a person is injured on or by a SEPTA bus, trolley or train, they should contact an experienced Philadelphia personal injury lawyer to determine whether they are entitled to payment for their medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering by SEPTA or the other negligent driver.