Are Commonwealth and Its Agencies the Same Legal Entity ?

In Tork-Hiis v. Commonwealth, 558 Pa. 170, 735 A.2d 1256 (1999), decedents died while cross-country skiing in a state park. Their survivors (appellees) commenced wrongful death and survivor actions against the Commonwealth and two "John Doe" defendants. The Commonwealth preliminarily objected on the grounds that it was statutorily immune, that appellees had failed to name a "Commonwealth party" for which immunity had been waived, and that the statute of limitations precluded amendment of the complaint. The trial court determined that the Commonwealth and a Commonwealth agency are separate and distinct entities and, thus, appellees could not amend their complaint after the statute of limitations had run because addition of a new party would be prejudicial to that party. The Court reversed, finding that the addition of an agency was a mere correction of the caption and was permissible, even after the statute of limitations had expired, so long as the same assets were exposed to judgment before and after the amendment. Tork-Hiis v. Commonwealth, 714 A.2d 518 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1998), reversed, 558 Pa. 170, 735 A.2d 1256 (1999). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the decision, holding that for purposes of tort litigation "the Commonwealth and its agencies are distinct legal entities; the substitution of one for the other amounts to the addition of a new party and is impermissible after the statute of limitations expires." Tork-Hiis, 558 Pa. at 177, 735 A.2d at 1259. The Court further explained that the plaintiff seeks to name a new defendant, one whose assets, although ultimately arising from the same tax base, are not congruent with those of the Commonwealth, and one that was not a party to the proceedings. The department asset pool consists of funds specifically allocated for the department's use, while the asset pool of the Commonwealth would necessarily encompass the specifically allocated funds of all departments. While the amount of compensation sought is the same regardless of the source (the Commonwealth or its agency), the assets of the Commonwealth are not the same as the assets of any of its agencies. Id. at 176-177, 735 A.2d at 1259.