Many have asked me whether the victims of the Market Street building collapse can sue the City of Philadelphia for damages for failing to conduct proper inspections of the building. The short answer is no. Sovereign immunity gives the City immunity from civil suit alleging it failed to properly inspect the Market Street building during demolition.
Generally, under the doctrine of sovereign immunity state and local governments are immune from civil lawsuits and criminal prosecution. (Like many of our laws, the doctrine owes its roots to England who long ago believed the crown could do no wrong.) The only exception is where the legislature has waived sovereign immunity by statute or where there is a constitutional violation. In Pennsylvania, a municipality, like the City of Philadelphia, can be sued for damages only if the City’s actions fall within one of the eight exceptions where the legislature has waived sovereign immunity. The eight exceptions to sovereign immunity are when the damages arise from:
(1) the operation of a car operated by a City employee or official;
(2) the care, custody, and control of personal property in the City’s possession;
(3) the care, custody, and control of real property in the City’s possession;
(4) the care, custody, and control of trees, traffic lights, traffic signs, or street lights or signs;
(5) a utility service;
(6) a dangerous condition on City owned streets;
(7) a dangerous condition on City owned sidewalks; and
(8) the care, custody, and control of animals.
Therefore, unless the victims of the Market Street building collapse can show that the City’s improper inspection of the building fell within one of these eight categories, they are out of luck and cannot sue the City. But wait, what about exception (3), the care, custody, and control of real property, wouldn’t the City’s improper inspection of the building fall within that exception? No, because possession under exception (3) means total control over the property, not limited control or mere occupation of the property.
The law is well settled in Pennsylvania on the issue. Municipal agencies enjoy sovereign immunity from claims that they failed to conduct proper inspections and abate code violations. On numerous occasions, plaintiffs have argued that exception (3) applies to allow suits against municipal agencies that have failed to properly conduct inspections or abate code violations only to see their argument rejected by the Court.
While City’s improper inspections — or lack thereof — of the Market Street may mean it is morally liable or liable as a matter of public policy, under the doctrine of sovereign immunity it is not legally liable for its failure to act.