Texas Supreme Court holds city is immune from premise defect and failure to ensure permit holder complied with maintenance obligations

CITY OF AUSTIN, TEXAS v. IRENE QUINLAN, 22-0202 (Tex. June 2, 2023)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case where the Texas Supreme Court held the City held immunity for a premise defect because the leaseholder to the property was responsible for maintenance. 

After dining, Irene Quinlan left the Güero’s Taco Bar, then fell more than a foot from the sidewalk to the street, injuring her ankle. The restaurant maintains a sidewalk cafe between its front door and the street. When the incident occurred, patrons could  proceed directly from the restaurant to the street. The restaurant has a permit from the City to operate its sidewalk cafe and a “Sidewalk Café Maintenance Agreement” with the City.  The restaurant is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the area under the agreement. The City, however, has the right to enter the sidewalk cafe premises to inspect, improve, maintain, alter, or utilize the premises to ensure the restaurant’s compliance. Quinlan sued both Güero’s and the City for premises liability, alleging that the City breached its duty of care by failing to install railings and failing to ensure maintenance was performed.  Quinlan asserted the agreement and Chapter 316 of the Transportation Code created an affirmative duty on the City to ensure compliance by the restaurant, which the City breached. The City filed a plea which was denied. The court of appeals affirmed in part (but reversed in part holding the city was immune from claims for failing to install railing). 

The claim which was appealed focused on the City’s negligent implementation of its policy regarding the maintenance of the premises. However, the agreement grants the City permission—but does not impose a contractual obligation—to conduct inspections or order additional maintenance.  The TTCA does not waive immunity from  claims based on the government’s failure to act when no particular action is required by law.  The Court also held that the Texas Transportation Code does not preclude the City from delegating, through permit or regulation or contract, the obligation to maintain the connecting right-of-way to the permit holder.   Because Quinlan’s claims were premised on the City’s “failure . . . to perform an act that [it] is not required by law to perform,”  the TTCA does not waive the City’s immunity from suit. Further, the delegation of the maintenance obligation was sufficient to relieve the City of responsibility over the premises in question. Despite Quinlin’s assertions,  whether a governmental entity controlled the premises is relevant to the merits of a cause of action premised on the Tort Claims Act’s waiver of immunity for premises-liability claims. The City did not have a non-delegable duty under Chapter 316 of the Texas Transportation Code to ensure maintenance compliance. 

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Lehrmann delivered the opinion of the Court.

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