El Paso Court of Appeals holds under Texas Tort Claims Act that a proper jurisdictional analysis should “not involve a significant inquiry into the substance of the claims.”

City of El Paso, Texas v. Joanna Cangialosi, 08-19-00163-CV (Tex. App. – El Paso, Aug. 31, 2020).

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction in a Texas Tort Claim Act (“TTCA”) automobile accident case. The El Paso Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.

Cangialosi was approaching a red stoplight. A vehicle driven by Aaron Roacho approached Cangialosi’s car from the rear at a high rate of speed, failed to stop, and struck Cangialosi’s vehicle with enough force to drive it into two other vehicles, killing several passengers. El Paso police officers were conducting surveillance in a residential neighborhood to investigate a spate of recent house burglaries. When police began following two suspects, the suspects increased their speed to avoid apprehension.  Six other El Paso police vehicles joined the pursuit, but Plaintiffs allege only one was a marked police unit that had its lights and siren engaged. They then lost sight of the vehicle.  The suspect vehicle (who testified he was not aware he was being followed by police) struck Cangialosi’s car.  Officer Villalobos, prior to the Cangialosi’s collision, struck another car due to his speed. The petition alleges that the manner in which the officers conducted the pursuit proximately caused the collision.  The City’s police department brought disciplinary charges against Villalobos and another officer, which were sustained as violating a safety practice and excessive speed (60mph in 30 zone). After Cangialosi filed suit, the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. The City appealed.

The City first asserted that no evidence existed a “pursuit” was underway so failing to follow the pursuit policy is irrelevant. The court held given that officers had witnessed an apparent break-in by the two-vehicle occupants, there is at least some evidence the police intended to apprehend the suspects.  Moreover, the record contains at least some evidence of a violation of department policy.  The Texas Supreme Court has agreed that a “peace officer’s flawed execution of policy gives rise to a colorable negligence claim.”  While expressing no opinion on whether negligence actually exists, the Court held sufficient pleadings and evidence creating factual disputes exists to establish jurisdiction and submit to a jury. The City next argued the suspect testified he was not aware that any vehicle was following him, so any pursuant could not have caused the accident. However, since the City did not respond to the Plaintiff’s arguments as to factual issues which may exist, the Court simply held it was not the role of the court to divine responses to well-articulated and facially plausible arguments.  Therefore, it held the Plaintiff has at least raised a fact question as to whether the suspect driver appreciated that the police were in pursuit at the time of the crash. A plaintiff is not required to “put on their case simply to establish jurisdiction.”  The plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Alley, and Justices Rodriguez and Palafox. Opinion by Chief Justice Alley.