Texas Supreme Court holds University retains immunity for interesection vehicle accident
Fraley v Texas A&M University System, No. 21-0784, (Tex. March 24, 2023)
This is a Texas Tort Claims Act case where the Texas Supreme Court the held the alleged failure to install warning signs and the overall design of the intersection are discretionary decisions for which no waiver of immunity exists.
Fraley drove straight through an unfamiliar and unlit T-intersection leaving the roadway and coming to rest in a ditch. The University owns and maintains the campus and its roadways. A month before the accident, the University converted the intersection from a four-way intersection into a three-way T-intersection and left the sloped ditch in place. The University placed a yield sign, but provided no other lights, signals, or warning signs. Fraley sued the University, claiming premise and special defects. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court denied the plea but the court of appeals reversed. Fraley appealed.
The Court noted that while the University did not produce any evidence attached to the Plea, Fraley did. When either party adduces evidence in connection with a jurisdictional plea, the trial court should consider that evidence in addition to challenges to the pleadings in confirming its jurisdiction. An ordinary roadway user follows the normal course of travel. An ordinary user does not careen uncontrollably off the paved roadway or miss a turn and crash through obstacles not on the roadway. Fraley alleges that the ditch adjoining the roadway presented a special defect, but does not distinguish this ditch in kind or in character from many others that run along Texas roads. Further the statutory text, likens special defects to excavations or obstructions on roads. While location is not determinative, off-roadway obstructions are different in kind than those present on the roadway, as the statute expressly contemplates. Neither the pleadings nor the evidence demonstrates that the ditch in this case possessed an unusual quality that might impair an ordinary driver from following the roadway. Drainage ditches along the roadway—including alongside the top of T-intersections—are a common feature of many Texas roads. Ordinarily, a ditch adjacent to a roadway does not impair or obstruct the ordinary course of travel on the roadway. No evidence exists the ditch was a special defect. The University’s earlier decision to convert the intersection does not change the nature of the premises or its condition on the night in question. The ditch was there before the conversion and remained after. The decision to redesign the intersection and place a yield sign—rather than a stop sign or some other signal—was discretionary, at least as an initial matter and therefore retains immunity. This retention of immunity for discretionary design decisions extends to decisions about the installation of safety features. Fraley similarly complains of the intersection’s lack of safety features like lights, barricades, and warning signs. The decision to omit these features from the design of the intersection fell within the University’s discretion. Absent a special defect, the Act’s discretionary-function exception precludes a waiver of immunity based on such allegations.
If you would like to read this opinion click here.