Developer’s asserted causal link between use of bulldozers and inability to timely sell lots is insufficient to establish waiver of immunity says 13th Court of Appeals

City of Weslaco v. Raquel Trejo and Roberto Trejo, 13-18-00024-CV (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi, June 21, 2018)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction in a Texas Tort Claims Act case where the 13th Court of Appeals reversed but remanded the case.

The Trejos began to develop land into a residential subdivision. The Trejos hired Rio Delta Engineering to develop plans and designs for the subdivision’s infrastructure. Before lots could be sold, essential services such as water and sewer would have to be designed, built, and approved by the City. The City elected to combine the sewer and water plans of the Trejos as well as another client of Rio Delta, the Apostolic Church. The Trejos alleged the City delayed the sewer extension unreasonably, costing them the ability to timely sell lots. The Trejos filed suit alleging that the City was negligent in managing the sewer construction project, which “involved the use of motorized vehicles.” The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The City appealed.

Because the Legislature has deemed sanitary and storm sewers to be a governmental function, immunity applies to the design allegations. The Trejos did not establish a waiver for such a claim.  No waiver exists for negligent training of personnel or supervisors. As to the claims for negligent operation of bulldozers, there must be a causal nexus between the operation or use of the motor-driven vehicle or equipment and a plaintiff’s property damage. This causal nexus is not satisfied by the mere involvement of vehicles or equipment, nor by a use that “does no more than furnish the condition that makes the injury possible.” The Trejos “have drawn a thin thread of causation across the span of many years and several intermediary steps—the use of equipment led to the design flaws, which led to problems with the sewer, which led to construction delays, which led to the Trejos’ inability to sell houses in 2008, which led to the project’s insolvency in 2009, which led to the bank’s foreclosure—in an effort to link the use of motorized equipment to the underlying harm of foreclosure.”  Such is too tenuous to be a causal link. However, the court held the Trejos should be given the opportunity to amend so remanded the case.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Rodriguez, Justice Contreras and Justice Hinojosa. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Rodriguez.  He attorneys listed for the City are Hector X Saenz and Charles S. Frigerio.  The attorney listed for the Trejos is Savannah Robinson.

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