In a win for victims of sexual assault in Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas rejected the City of Philadelphia’s attempt to impose a severe limitation on the Sexual Abuse Exception to Local Governments’ Sovereign Immunity.
In J.S. v. City of Philadelphia, Plaintiff J.S., an openly gay man, brought suit against the City of Philadelphia and others for a 2019 sexual assault perpetrated by guards in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. J.S. alleges that shortly after being processed, several guards attacked him and attempted to sodomize him with an unknown object. As a result, J.S. sustained puncture wounds to his gluteal muscles, an acute kidney injury, rib fractures, and other injuries. The City was sued under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8542(b)(9), an exception to local governments’ sovereign immunity which was enacted by the Pennsylvania Legislature in Act 87 of 2019. Specifically, section 8542(b)(9) waives sovereign immunity for certain sexual abuse that occurs as the result of local government's negligence.
After being served with the suit, the City of Philadelphia filed preliminary objections seeking dismissal. The City argued that the Sexual Abuse exception in Section 8542(b)(9) only applied to sexual assaults perpetrated against minors. Because J.S. was an adult at the time he was abused by the City’s employees, the City argued that the abuse was not covered by the exception and was therefore immune from suit. It goes without saying that if this interpretation were accepted, numerous sexual assault survivors would be denied a remedy in Court.
On behalf of J.S., Attorney Jason Javie filed an opposition to the City’s objections. Attorney Javie argued primarily that the City’s suggested interpretation ignored the plain language of the exception and improperly relied on select statements made by legislators prior to the law’s enactment. On October 6, 2021, the Honorable Sean F. Kennedy of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas rejected the City’s arguments and allowed the suit to proceed.
Importantly, Act 87 also contained a Sexual Abuse Exception to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s sovereign immunity. This exception is identical to Section 8542(b)(9). Judge Kennedy’s ruling is thus an important victory for sexual assault survivors throughout Pennsylvania. His interpretation of the Sexual Abuse Exception to Sovereign Immunity will ensure that victims of sexual abuse across the Commonwealth will continue to have access to justice.
If you or a loved one has been the victim of a sexual assault, contact us now to learn your options!