Texas Supreme Court explains plaintiffs’ burdens to defeat a plea to the jurisdiction under Texas Tort Claims Act

Wesley Rattray, et. al, v. City of Brownsville, 20-0975 (Tex. March 10, 2023) 

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case regarding property damage arising from the operation or use of motor driven equipment. The Texas Supreme Court reversed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and remanded. [Comment: this case has a lot of helpful holdings for entities, even though the Court ultimately reversed the granting of the plea. The main reason for the reversal relates to the stage of the litigation and whether the Plaintiffs created a fact issue. ] 

The Plaintiffs are eleven homeowners who live in the Quail Hollow subdivision of Brownsville. When a rainstorm produced a large amount of rain, the City’s stormwater manager, Figueroa, specifically examined the subdivision’s drainage system (utilizing a specific resaca) which has five gates. The gates are driven by motors. At one point during the storm, Figueroa closed  the North Laredo Gate. They monitored the flow near the South Gate. The homeowners allege that about two feet of water from the resaca then spilled over its banks and into their homes. They assert that by closing the North Gate and not reopening as conditions changed, such caused the flooding. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court denied, but the court of appeals reversed and granted. The court of appeals asserted the claims alleged the “non-use” of the North Gate as opposed to its negligent operation. The homeowners appealed.  

The Court went through a detailed analysis of the burdens a plaintiff has when trying to defeat a plea. [Comment: any entity attorneys who file pleas regularly should review the analysis.] All governmental entities are immune unless the immunity is waived. The starting point is always the status quo: a presumption against any waiver until the plaintiff establishes otherwise. To do so, a plaintiff may invoke various provisions of the TTCA. The TTCA also provides various exceptions that function as a withdrawal of the waiver of immunity which the plaintiff must also allege and negate.  If a plaintiff successfully establishes a waiver and negates any relevant expressed withdrawal of the waiver, the Act also contains some provisions that operate to limit recovery. The TTCA represents a delicate balance that the legislature alone can strike. Even if a governmental unit would be happy to waive “its” immunity, it is not the governmental unit’s immunity to waive. Being “within” the waiver entails both key parts described above: satisfying the provisions that clearly and affirmatively waive immunity and negating any provisions that create exceptions. A governmental defendant, in turn, plays its role by identifying where jurisdiction might be lacking and raising any such deficiencies. The rigor of proof required to satisfy a court that jurisdiction is present increases at each stage of litigation. The fundamental rule is that the court may not reach the merits if it finds a single valid basis to defeat jurisdiction at each stage.  

The parties do not dispute that the North Laredo Gate has a motor. Nor do they dispute that Figueroa, a City employee, closed it. The only reason that the North Laredo Gate would have had to be opened was because, during the same storm, the City closed it. What mattered to the Court here is that the North Laredo Gate was used to control waterflow in the resaca, the City closed the gate, and it was that use of the gate (the attempt to control waterflow) that immediately preceded and allegedly caused the flooding of the homeowners’ neighborhood. As a result, the pleadings are sufficient to establish a waiver. The Court noted that the failure to close would not be a waiver if another event had occurred the following day. The Court also cautioned that there was a fact issue on causation, and no finding that such acts will ultimately result in a waiver is pre-supposed.  

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Young.  

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