Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, injury to self by suicide is a foreseeable injury under the motor-vehicle waiver of immunity when officer did not properly fasten a seatbelt of a detainee 

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Austin  v. Sayeed Anam, et al., 03-19-00294-CV (Tex. App.—Austin, July 30, 2020) (mem. op.).

In this Texas Tort Claims Act, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction for the death of an arrestee by suicide due to use of a motor vehicle because it was foreseeable that not properly fastening a seatbelt would allow an arrestee to commit suicide.

The decedent was arrested after shoplifting at a mall.   The officer performed a search on the decedent and fastened his seatbelt, but the decedent had a handgun in his waistband that went undetected.  During the ride, the decedent was able to unfasten his seatbelt, and after revealing to the officer that he was suicidal, told the officer he had a loaded handgun to his own head.  The officer then stopped and exited the vehicle and the decedent committed suicide.  The family of the decedent sued the City under the Tort Claims Act alleging that the use of a motor vehicle, not properly fastening the seatbelt, was the foreseeable cause of the death of the arrestee.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that there was not sufficient evidence that the motor vehicle caused the death.

In order to waive the government’s immunity through the Tort Claims Act, the plaintiff has to allege that it was the operation or use of the motor vehicle that caused the injury or death.  The Court of Appeals held that the improper fastening of a seatbelt is a foreseeable cause of an injury to self by an arrestee.  The Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plea to the jurisdiction on causation.  The Court did not review the issue of whether tangible personal property caused the injury.

A dissent was filed, and the judge stated that death by suicide is not a proximate cause or foreseeable from not properly using a seatbelt, that instead the foreseeable injury from not using a seatbelt is injury from a car accident.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Dissent by Chief Justice Rose can be viewed here.  Panel consists of Chief Justice Rose and Justices Triana and Smith.  Opinion by Justice Gisela Triana.