University retains immunity from suit after chemistry student accidentally ingested sodium cyanide from lab

Texas A&M University v. Kevin Taylor, et. al, 10-17-00288-CV (Tex. App. – Waco, July 3, 2018)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of Texas A&M University’s plea to the jurisdiction where the Waco Court of Appeals reversed the denial.

The Taylors’ son, Christian, was a biochemistry major at TAMU. TAMU provided a key to Christian to allow him to access the biochemistry lab. Christian ingested sodium cyanide he obtained from the lab and died. The Taylors sued for wrongful death.  TAMU filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied.

The Texas Tort Claims Act waives immunity for injuries arising out of a condition or use of tangible personal property. To state a “condition” claim under the Tort Claims Act, there must be an allegation of “defective or inadequate property.” Taylors argue that the failure to secure the sodium cyanide in some manner within the locked lab was a “condition” of tangible personal property that contributed to Christian’s death. However, the Taylors’ pleadings include no facts that indicate that the sodium cyanide itself was somehow “defective or inadequate.” A governmental unit does not “use” tangible personal property “when it merely allows someone else to use it.” Further, the injury must be contemporaneous with the use of the tangible personal property (i.e. using that property must have actually caused the injury.)  None of those situations exist in this case.  Finally, Taylor’s arguments asserting TAMU’s policy decisions waived immunity disregard the TTCA provision preserving immunity for discretionary functions. As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Chief Justice Gray, Justice Davis and Justice Scoggins. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Davis.  The attorneys listed for the University are Kara L. Kennedy, Jacob Jones and Nichelle A. Cobb.  The attorneys listed for the Plaintiffs are Jody D. Leake and Joseph Craven.

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