Knowledge of a hypothetical hazard is insufficient to waive immunity under the TTCA for premise defects says 1st Court of Appeals

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The City of Houston v. Bobby Terry, 01-19-00197-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], Jan. 23, 2020).

This is a Texas Tort Claim Act (TTCA) case where the First District Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the case.

Terry was electrocuted while performing maintenance on a communication tower leased by the  City. Terry was employed by a contractor at the time, but he was accompanied by a City employee (Hunter) at the site. Before having Terry climb the tower to replace a lightbulb, Hunter was to remove the control box faceplate, which theoretically should cut the power.  However, when Terry touched the lightbulb which needed replacing 300 feet up the tower, he was shocked. Hunter testified that he did not know the source of the electricity. Hunter maintained that the power was off because (1) power immediately stops running to the tower when the control box’s faceplate is removed and (2) Terry’s injuries would have been far more severe had the power been on. However, evidence existed several capacitors were near the control box and could have retained a charge for a short while. Terry brought claims under the TTCA for injuries resulting from both the use of tangible personal property and for premise defects. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction.  The trial court granted the plea as to the negligent use of personal property but denied it as to the premise defect.

The court held a claim for premises liability is distinct from a claim for general negligence. The Tort Claims Act’s premises liability provision imposes heightened requirements for liability, and they cannot be avoided by recasting a premises defect claim as one for general negligence. Under a premise defect theory, the City only owed a duty to warn of dangers it had actual knowledge existed. Failing to turn off the electricity does not fall under a premise defect theory, but is a general negligence theory. Premises liability instead concerns nonfeasance theories of liability based on the failure to take measures to make the property safe. Any fact issue relating to Hunter’s alleged failure to turn off the electricity to the tower is immaterial to the premise defect analysis. Under a premise defect theory, Terry did not establish a waiver. It is undisputed that any residual electricity stored in the capacitors should have dissipated about a minute or two after the power was turned off.  Given that it took Terry at least 30 minutes to climb the tower and reach the lightbulb where he was electrocuted, Hunter’s awareness that these capacitors carried a short-term charge does not rise to the level of actual knowledge of a dangerous condition. At most, Hunter’s testimony about the tower’s capacitors raises an inference that he may have been aware of a hypothetical hazard. That is not enough. Assuming that the tower’s capacitors were the source of the electricity that injured Terry, any power they stored was present because that is how the capacitors operate. Hunter, however, did not know they posed a danger.  As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Lloyd, Justice Goodman, and Justice Landau.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Goodman. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

Fort Worth Court says under premise defect claim plaintiff paid for use of the property even though she was using public sidewalk

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The City of Fort Worth, Texas v. Dianne Posey, 02-19-00351-CV, (Tex. App – Fort Worth, Jan. 16, 2020)

This is a premise liability/Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals held a fact question exists as to Posey’s payment for use of the premises so the plea to the jurisdiction was properly denied.

Posey attended a Christmas gift market put on by the Junior League of Fort Worth at the Will Rogers Memorial Center (“WRMC”). Posey asserts she paid for entry to the  Coliseum. The City asserts Posey purchased the entry ticket to enter the gift market from the Junior League and not the City.  After the market event, Posey walked down the public sidewalk to return to her car and tripped over an unknown metal object located in the concrete sidewalk. Posey fell and suffered injuries. Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, the City owes Posey a duty “that a private person owes to a licensee on private property, unless the claimant pays for use of the premises.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.022(a). If Posey paid for the use of the premises, she is an invitee; if not, she is a mere licensee.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on lack of actual knowledge required of a licensee. The plea was denied and the City appealed.

If Posey was a licensee, she must show that the City had actual knowledge of the unreasonable risk of harm created by the obstruction. If she was an invitee, she need only show that the City should have known of the risk—i.e., constructive knowledge. Posey asserts she paid a fee to park at the coliseum, and it is undisputed that the parking fee went directly to the City. Second, Posey offered evidence that she paid a $12 fee to enter Junior League’s gift fair, and Junior League, in turn, paid the City to rent the premises. However, the City asserts Posey fell on a public sidewalk for which she did not have to make any payment. One line of cases would agree with the City that the standard should be “but for” the payment, the claimant would not have access to the area. However, because of the text of the TTCA, the court held Posey “paid for the use of the premises” and the fact others could access the same area without paying is immaterial for statutory construction principles. Further, the statute does not say that the claimant must pay for exclusive or nonpublic use of the premises. Posey introduced multiple forms of evidence—including a contract and testimony from the City’s own representative—showing that the payments also endowed her with the express right to use the walkway to travel between the parking lot and the gift fair. As a result, a fact question exists as to whether Posey is considered an invitee or licensee. The plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Affirmed. Panel consists of Justices Birdwell, Bassel, and Wallach. Opinion by Justice Birdwell. Docket page with attorney information found here.

El Paso Court of Appeals holds concrete barrier and canal at end of roadway is a special defect

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City of El Paso, Texas v. Albert Lopez and Lexby Lopez, 08-19-00056-CV, (Tex. App – El Paso, Dec. 12, 2019)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the El Paso Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Plaintiff Lopez was traveling on his motorcycle at night when the roadway ended with a concrete barrier and canal. There were neither road signs nor any other type of warnings or lighting. Lopez struck the barrier and was killed. The police investigation report noted “the driver . . . failed to stop for the end of the street or roadway and crashed his bike into the canal.” A nearby resident also gave a statement that “there are a lot of cars that crash into the canal” because “[t]here are no warning signs to let you know that the street ends so when people come out the bars they wind up crashing at the canal.”  The investigation listed “lack of signs and illumination” as factors in causing the accident.  Lopez’s family brought a wrongful death claim against the City. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The Plaintiffs failed to provide statutory notice of the accident but asserted the City had actual notice of its fault. Citing to the recent Texas Supreme Court case in Worsdale v. City of Killeen, 578 S.W.3d 57 (Tex. 2019), the court held the “critical inquiry is the governmental unit’s actual anticipation of an alleged claim rather than subjective confirmation of its actual liability.” After reviewing the record the court held the  City had actual notice of the claim under the TTCA. Next, the court analyzed whether the concrete barrier was a special defect. Both the canal and the concrete barrier were located on the roadway’s path, neither of which were visible in the dark to ordinary motorists. As a result, the court determined it was a special defect and the plea was properly denied.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Alley, Justices Rodriguez and Palafox. Opinion by Justice Birdwell. The attorneys listed for the Plaintiffs are Ramon King Jr. and Lloyd Robles.  The attorney listed for the City is Anelisa Benavides.

4th Court of Appeals holds city vendor’s fair maybe proprietary function so trial court properly denied plea to the jurisdiction

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City of Helotes v. Jean Marie Page, 04-19-00437-CV, (Tex. App – San Antonio, Dec. 18, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction in which San Antonio Court of Appeals held the Plaintiff’s injuries were caused during the performance of a potential proprietary function.

A City employee dropped a table while removing it from a parked golf cart. The table allegedly struck the accelerator on the cart, propelling it forward and striking Plaintiff Page. The accident occurred when the City employee was setting up for an event called the “MarketPlace at Old Town Helotes” and is a vendor’s fair where the City rents booths to vendors who sell merchandise and food. The MarketPlace is held on public streets in “Old Town Helotes,” and the streets are closed to traffic. The MarketPlace is sponsored, supervised, regulated, operated, and managed by the City. Page sued the City.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The Texas Tort Claims Act  defines proprietary functions as “those functions that a municipality may, in its discretion, perform in the interest of the inhabitants of the municipality.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.0215(b). Proprietary functions are “usually activities ‘that can be, and often are, provided by private persons.’”  Citing to  Wasson Interests, Ltd. v. City of Jacksonville, 559 S.W.3d 142 (Tex. 2018) the court of appeals noted it was a factually specific analysis as to whether an activity is proprietary or governmental. A city’s proprietary functions “will often benefit some nonresidents,” but in determining whether the MarketPlace was intended to benefit the general public or the City’s residents, courts focus on whether the activity “primarily benefits one or the other.” The facts demonstrated the primary objective was to assist local businesses by generating community involvement in the Old Town Helotes area which undisputedly “raised funds for the City’s budget.” The revenues were recorded in the MarketPlace budget, and any profits could remain in the MarketPlace line item or be used for other City departments. The City did not provide any evidence the event was necessary for City operations. As a result, “some” evidence exists the MarketPlace may be proprietary.  As a result, the pleadings indicate jurisdiction and the trial court properly denied the plea.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Alvarez, Rios, and Rodriguez.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Alvarez. Docket page with attorney information found here.

No waiver of immunity for city contract to install sewer lines on property says 4th Court of Appeals

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Twanda Brown v. City of Ingram04-1900508-CV (Tex. App. —  San Antonio, Nov. 20, 2019).  

In this suit, the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction related to counterclaims regarding utility services.  

The City of Ingram (“the City”) sued Brown and eight other defendants, seekingdeclaratory judgment that its ordinances regarding penalties and permits for utilities and wastewater are “valid and reasonable exercises of the City’s police powers.” Brown answered the City’s suit and asserted a counterclaim for breach of contract, alleging the City “breached its Contract for Wastewater Services by knowingly permitting an unqualified, unlicensed subcontractor” to connect her property to the City’s sewer system. Brown alleged the subcontractor’s negligence “sever[ed] a gas line and caus[ed] damages to Brown and her property.” The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted.  Brown appealed.  

The Texas Tort Claims Act makes sanitation, water, and sewer services governmental functions, thereby entitling the City to immunity absent a waiver. The City’s actions of connecting residents to the city’s sewer system is a governmental functionImmunity is waived for breach of contract claims for goods or services provided to the entityBrown’s pleadings allege the purported contract was an agreement to provide goods or services to Brown (i.e. construction and installation of service lines), not the other way around. Because any purported contract does not involve the provision of goods or services to the City, it is not a “contract subject to” the waiver in Texas Local Government Code chapter 271 subchapter I.  

Several days after the trial court granted the plea to the jurisdiction, the City filed a motion to strike an affidavit submitted by the City on the basis that counsel for the City learned the affiant made a mistake as to the location of a photograph.  Brown filed an objection but also sought in the alternative, the trial court re-open the hearing. The court noted the record does not reflect whether the trial court ruled on either. However, the court held the issue is irrelevant to the ability to rule on the appeal as it does not change the analysis of the type of contract involved.  Finally, the court denied the City’s request for sanctions as they do not believe the claims “lacked any reasonable basis in law.”   

If you would like to read this opinion click hereThe panel consists of Chief Justice Marion, and Justices Alvarez and Chapa. Opinion by Chief Justice Marion. The attorney for Brown is listed as Roger Gordon.  The attorneys listed for the City are Charles E. ZechScott Micheal Tschirhart  and Llse D. Bailey 

Even though inmate asserted eye-injury due to laser was accidental, Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds pleadings actually assert battery – no waiver of immunity exists

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Tarrant County, Texas v. Tony Lee Green, 02-19-00159-CV (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Oct. 24, 2019)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Fort Worth Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the County’s plea to the jurisdiction based on an intentional tort.

While Green was a jail inmate, he asserts Corporal Davis at the jail pointed a temperature gun which utilized a laser for measurements at his left eye, causing injury.   Corporal Davis admits to using a laser temperature gun, but denied the laser impacting Green. Green testified that he does not believe Davis hit him with the laser intentionally.  However, he testified Davis pointed the temperature gun at him as a result of Green telling a joke about Davis moments before. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting Green alleged an intentional tort, even though Green disclaimed the injury was performed intentionally. The trial court denied the plea and the  County appealed.

Although the specific intent to inflict injury is unquestionably part of some intentional torts, a specific intent to injure is not an essential element of a battery, which does not require physical injury and which can involve a harmful or offensive contact intended to help or please the plaintiff. The court noted that accidental injuries can sometimes result from an intentional tort.  The court drew a distinction between criminal and civil analysis for “intentional” conduct regarding battery. Green’s allegations constitute a common-law battery claim because the contact—either offensive or provocative—was an intentional act made in response to Green’s own provocative statement. As battery is an intentional tort, no waiver of immunity exists. The plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Sudderth, Justice Bassel and Justice Wallach. Memorandum opinion by Chief Justice Sudderth. The attorneys listed for Green are Scott H. Palmer and Niles Illich.  The attorneys listed for the County are Christopher Taylor and Kimberly Colliet Wesley.

Texas Supreme Court holds University immune under Recreational Use Statute when bicyclist is hit by motor vehicle driven by University employee

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University of Texas Austin v April Garner, 18-0740 (Tex. Oct 18, 2019.

This is a Recreational Use Statute case where the Texas Supreme Court reversed the denial of the University’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claims.

The University of Texas at Austin owns and operates the Colorado Apartments, a student housing complex. Within the complex are four roads that permit two-way traffic around the complex and contain parking spaces that are oriented perpendicularly to the road.  They connect to City of Austin streets. Bicyclists commonly use the road. Garner was traveling by bicycle to the trail head at Eilers Park.  University employee Angel Moreno was backing out from a southwest-facing parking space and struck Garner. Garner sued the University for negligence, contending that the Tort Claims Act waived the University’s immunity by the operation and use of a motor vehicle. The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting the application of the Recreational Use Statute (“RUS”), which was denied, and the court of appeals affirmed. The University appealed.

The RUS limits the liability of all landowners—public and private—who permit others to use their property for activities the statute defines as “recreation.” Such landowners are “effectively immunize[d]” from ordinary negligence claims, owing those who use their property for recreation only the duty not to injure them intentionally or through gross negligence. Garner’s only claim against the University sounds in ordinary negligence. She does not allege that the University or Moreno acted with gross negligence, malicious intent, or bad faith.  The court of appeals held the RUS did not apply because under subsection (c) it did not grant permission to use the roads for recreational use. However, under the RUS subsection (f) states “Notwithstanding Subsections (b) and (c), if a person enters premises owned, operated, or maintained by a governmental unit and engages in recreation on those premises, the governmental unit does not owe to the person a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises.” Subsection (f) contains no language (unlike subsection (c)) requiring permission or invitation. Here, it is undisputed that Garner (1) entered premises owned by a governmental unit and (2) engaged in an activity on those premises—bicycling—that qualifies as “recreation” under the statute. As a result, no waiver of immunity applies.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per curium opinion.  For the docket page click here.

Car accident Plaintiff failed to establish subjective awareness of fault by City, so City retains immunity

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City of Houston v. Francisco Cruz, 14-18-00080-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.], August 27, 2019).

This is a Texas Tort Claim Act (“TTCA”) case involving a motor vehicle accident where the 14th Court of Appeals reversed the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the Plaintiff’s claims.

Cruz sued Reyes for damages resulting from a car accident that occurred in November 2015. Cruz alleges Reyes ran a red light at an intersection and collided with Cruz’s vehicle. Reyes moved to add the City of Houston as a third-party defendant. Cruz amended his petition to add the City as well. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction based on a lack of statutory notice, which was denied. The City appealed.

It was not until March of 2017 that Cruz’s lawyer sent a notice letter to the City but listed the client as Francisco Lopez in parts and Cruz in other parts. However, Cruz added the City two weeks after sending the letter. The City contends Cruz was required to give it notice of the claim within 90 days of the accident under the City’s’ charter, but at most within 180 days under the TTCA.  The City submitted affidavits from various custodians noting no notice was received for either Lopez or Cruz.  Cruz responded the City had actual notice because the City was aware of a malfunctioning traffic signal at the intersection on the day the accident occurred. Knowledge that a death, injury, or property damage has occurred, standing alone, is not sufficient.   Actual notice requires that a governmental unit have “subjective awareness that its fault, as ultimately alleged by the claimant, produced or contributed to the claimed injuries.” When factually the issues of communication are undisputed, the issue of subjective awareness is a question of law. Cruz merely provided information there was “a problem at the intersection” which is insufficient to establish a factual dispute on subjective awareness. Cruz failed to provide an affidavit or explanation as to why further discovery was needed. As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion, as click here. Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Bourliot, and Spain.  Memorandum opinion from Justice Bourliot. The attorneys listed for Cruz are Husein Hadimohammadabadi, Jamil Thomas and
Carnegie Harvard Mims III.  The attorney listed for the City is Fernando De Leon.

4th Court of Appeals holds City painting of curb with yellow was a discretionary function entitling City to immunity

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The City of San Antonio v. Elena Herrera, 04-18-00881-CV (San Antonio, Aug. 21, 2019) 

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case where the San Antonio Court of Appeals held the painting of a ramp and curb specific non-contrasting colors was a discretionary function, entitling the City to retain immunity. 

Herrera fell in a City owned/operated parking garage allegedly due to a step from curb and ramp.  The curb of the landing, the ramp, and the flares are all painted yellow. The City’s discovery responses stated these elements of the garage have “always been painted a bright, highly visible yellow color,” and that City maintenance crews had painted it the same way once or twice a year for at least the last twelve years. Herrera asserted the coloring made the curb and ramp appear flush so she did not realize a step-down existed. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The City appealed. 

Herrera contends the unreasonably dangerous condition is the lack of visual contrast between the curb and the flares and the absence of any warning of the step down.  Herrera confirmed that her fall was not caused by a slippery substance or by a defect in the actual structure of the ramp/flares, such as a chip or crack, or that the lighting in the garage was insufficient.  Essentially, she is asserting the City failed to use contrasting colors. However, decisions about installing safety features are discretionary decisions.  Yellow paint on elements of a walkway is a common safety feature used to provide visual cues of an elevation change and the City’s use or non-use was a discretionary function for which the City maintains immunity.  The court found it significant no state regulations require any particular color scheme. Further, the City had no duty to bring forth evidence that a “conscious exercise” of discretion was made in order for the discretionary function exception to apply, only that the function is a discretionary one.  Finally, since she already replead once, she is not entitled to another opportunity.  Her claims were dismissed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Chief Justice Marion, Justice Chapa, and Justice Rodriguez. Memorandum opinion by Justice Chapa. 

Dallas Court of Appeals holds officer entered intersection in good faith – entitled to official immunity

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City of Dallas v. Rosa Rodriguez, 05-19-00045-CV, (Tex. App. – Dallas Texas, August 7, 2019)

In this Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”)/motor vehicle accident/emergency responder case, the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the case.

Rodriguez was injured when a Dallas police officer disregarded a red light and collided with her.  The officer driving the vehicle provided the accident investigation as well as her own affidavit, noting she was responding to an emergency call regarding a person who was breaking windows and threatening to shoot a woman in her home.

The officer stated she approached the intersection and came to a complete stop before proceeding through the intersection. The officer also stated that “all traffic on the northbound side had stopped and was giving [her] passage.” Rodriguez asserted the officer did not stop, and the PD had a policy requiring officers to come to a complete stop. It was discovered after the accident that the officer’s lights and sirens were not working properly, based on dash cam footage. The video’s GPS “speed” indication shows the officer’s speed at 23 mph just before she appears to come to a complete stop. The speed indicator quickly drops to 9 mph and then to 2  mph after after she stopped; the indicator immediately shows her speed at 3 mph as she slowly entered the intersection. The officer’s affidavit stated the potential danger posed by proceeding through the intersection was far less, considering all factors, than the danger posed to the officers and victims involved in the emergency at issue.  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing official immunity, which was denied.

The court first noted that Rodriguez’ objections to the officer’s affidavit (i.e., hearsay and best evidence) were not sufficiently specific. The court held that the “stop at the intersection is very brief, but the stop is apparent from the video, and it is clear that the GPS simply did not have time to read zero before” the officer started moving again. The video also indicates “triggers” including lights, siren, and brakes. The officer testified she understood that, in making discretionary decisions during emergency calls, she must weigh the need to respond urgently to the emergency call against the risk involved to the general public when responding to the emergency. She explained her thought process on the record.  The court held that the fact a collision occurred does not equate to a showing that the law was violated and is insufficient to raise a fact issue on recklessness.  An officer’s own affidavit can establish good faith, and an officer’s good faith is not rebutted by evidence that she violated department policy.  The record shows the need/risk analysis performed by the officer. Rodriguez failed to establish a fact issue as to recklessness. As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices Bridges, Brown and Nowell. The attorneys listed for Dallas County are Bonnie Snell, Amy I. Messer, James B. Pinson, Jason G. Schuette, and Nicholas Palmer. The attorneys listed for Rosa Rodriguez are Susan B. Smith, Billy McGill Jr., and Briana Crozier.

Texas Supreme Court holds use of fluid during surgery can trigger waiver of immunity, irrespective of medical judgment

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THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS M.D. ANDERSON CANCER CENTER v. LANCE MCKENZIE, 17-0730 (June 28, 2019)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA)/tangible personal property case in which the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the district’s plea to the jurisdiction for its use of a carrier agent during surgery. 

Cortney McKenzie-True began treatment for cancer at M.D. Anderson. She went through a test trial for treatment. The visible cancer was first surgically removed. After a chemo drug was administered, the body was washed out with a carrier agent. The hospital used D5W. Use of the carrier agent had an adverse effect on McKenzie-True, which was a known risk but was considered to have a small probability of occurring. McKenzie-True died, and the (McKenzie) family sued. The hospital filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting the carrier agent was properly administered, so no negligent use of the drug had occurred. The lower courts denied the plea, and the hospital appealed. 

The hospital asserts the  McKenzies’ actual claims complain of negligent use of medical judgment, not negligent use of the carrier agent.  The McKenzies asserted it was the agent that caused the death, and the hospital should have known it was the incorrect fluid to use. This case blurs the fine line between medical judgment and the negligent implementation of that judgment. The Court held that “[w]hile we agree that a complaint about medical judgment, without more, is insufficient to waive immunity, the negligence alleged here does not involve only medical judgment.”  The issue becomes whether the injury is caused by improper medical judgment in which tangible property is used or whether the use, itself, of the property caused the injury, and the fact the property was administered properly is irrelevant. The Plaintiffs alleged D5W never should have been used, due to the high levels needed for the test trial procedure. The fact that the use was preceded by medical judgment is of no consequence, since all aspects of surgery are preceded by medical judgment. From a pleading standpoint, this is sufficient to establish jurisdiction and a potential waiver.  

Additionally, the Court held this was the analysis of immunity from suit, not immunity from liability.  Essentially, the Court held the plea allegations are based not only on medical judgment, but on a direct causal connection of the use of personal property. 

The dissent asserts that a separation of the decision (medical judgment) from the use of property is important. The majority’s interpretation eliminates sovereign immunity regarding medical judgment. Noting, “If sugar water [D5W] should not have been used, neither should a scalpel have been, or the surgical apparatus, or for that matter, the building.” The dissent asserted the medical judgment should not be disregarded and that if it was based on medical judgment, there is no waiver. 

If you would like to read this opinion, click here: opinion of the Court.  Justice Lehrmann delivered the opinion in which Justices Guzman, Boyd, Devine, and Blacklock joined. Chief Justice Hecht delivered a dissenting opinion, with Justice Green and Justice Brown joining.

Eastland Court of Appeals holds erroneously calling the police is a discretionary act exempting employees from ultra vires claims

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The University of Texas of the Permian Basin et al. v. Michael Banzhoff, 11-17-00325-CV (Tex. App. – Eastland, May 31, 2019).

This is an ultra vires and abuse of process case where there Eastland Court of Appeals held the University of Texas at Permian Basin (UTPB) retained governmental immunity.

UTPB hired Banzhoff as a golf coach but terminated him within a year. He was issued a criminal trespass notice not to attend UTPB sporting events. Shortly after his termination, Banzhoff was arrested at the Odessa Country Club for criminal trespass.  Banzhoff sued UTPB, the athletic director (Aicinena) and the interim coach who replaced him (Newman) alleging seven different causes of action. Aicinena and Newman moved to be dismissed under §101.106(e) of the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) and UTPB filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court granted the dismissal as to Aicinena and Newman, and partially granted UTPB’s plea. The trial court allowed the abuse of process and ultra vires claims to proceed. UTPB filed this interlocutory appeal.

As to the abuse of process claim, no waiver of governmental immunity exists for such a tort. To fall within the ultra vires exception, “a suit must not complain of a government officer’s exercise of discretion, but rather must allege, and ultimately prove, that the officer acted without legal authority or failed to perform a purely ministerial act.”  Suits complaining of ultra vires actions must be brought against government officials in their official capacity and may seek only prospective injunctive remedies. In this case, UTPB—a governmental entity—is not a proper defendant to Banzhoff’s ultra vires claim. As to the individuals, the general allegations in the pleadings are insufficient to plead an ultra vires claim against Aicinena or Newman.  Further, Banzhoff failed to plead any facts that support a finding that Aicinena or Newman exceeded any delegated authority, did not perform a ministerial duty, or violated Banzhoff’s constitutional rights.  The court expressly noted the criminal trespass notice in the record was not issued by either Aicinena or Newman and that there was no specific allegation either man called the police regarding Banzhoff’s presence at the Odessa Country Club. However, even if the court were to take Banzhoff’s allegations as true, “he fails to explain how issuing a criminal trespass notice or calling the police—even if done erroneously—are anything but discretionary actions by Aicinena or Newman.”  As a result, the plea should have been granted in its entirety.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey, Justice Willson and Wright, Senior Justice.   Memorandum Opinion by Chief Justice Bailey.  The attorneys listed for Banzhoff are Gerald K. Fugit and M. Michele Greene.  The attorneys listed for UTPB are Enrique M. Varela and Eric Hudson.

Texas Supreme Court holds County still retains immunity from liability after inmate fell using broken chair

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Tarrant County v Roderick Bonner, 18-0431 (Tex. May 24, 2019)

This is an inmate Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) claim where the Texas Supreme Court held Tarrant County (County) was immune from liability for a defective chair while treating an inmate for his medical condition.

A deputy accidently damaged the leg of a chair while working at the jail where Bonner was housed. The deputy notified his supervisor of the damaged chair, who instructed the deputy to place the chair in the multipurpose room before filling out a report. Bonner, an inmate, had diabetes and entered the multipurpose room for treatment.  When he attempted to use the chair, it collapsed. Bonner sued for injuries under the TTCA asserting the negligent use of personal property.  At the summary judgment stage, the County argued despite the waiver under the TTCA, it retained immunity under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure (TCCP) and Texas Government Code. The trial court granted the motion, the court of appeals reversed, and the County filed a petition for review.

Under the TCCP article 42.20, certain individuals and governmental entities are not liable for damages arising from action or inaction in connection with an inmate activity, including treatment activities, if the action or inaction was performed in an official capacity and was not performed with conscious indifference. Similarly, under the Texas Government Code § 497.096 a county and sheriff’s department employees are not liable for damages arising from action or inaction in connection with an inmate or offender treatment activity if the action or inaction was not intentional, willfully negligent or performed with conscious indifference or reckless disregard. After analyzing the statutory sections, the Court held Bonner’s allegations are more than simply the County failed to warn of the broken chair, it was the use of the chair during treatment which caused his injury. The two statutes immunize negligent acts and omissions that are reasonably related to the covered programs or activities, even when the relationship is indirect. As a practical matter, this includes acts or omissions, which give rise to damages during covered programs and activities. The Court recognized the statutes only immunize the County from liability to the extent its corporate actions or omissions were not performed with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others. As a result, it was an immunity to liability only, not an immunity from suit. The County must assert it qualifies for the conditions, thereby placing the burden on the County. Once the defendant establishes that those conditions exist, the burden falls on the plaintiff to establish the statute’s exception to that defense, which is expressed as a heightened liability standard. The Court referred to this as a form of statutory immunity. Under this heightened standard, a defendant must have actual subjective knowledge of an extreme risk of serious harm.  Based on the record, the Court concluded no evidence exists of conscious indifference towards Bonner. As a result, the trial court’s granting of the summary judgment was proper.

Justice Boyd concurred in the judgment, but wrote separately as he disagreed (1) conscious indifference is “the same as” gross negligence or (2) a person cannot be consciously indifferent to a risk that is less than “extreme.”

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Justice Devine.  Justice Boyd wrote a concurring opinion found here. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

First District Court of Appeals holds proving patient tangible personal property does not waive immunity

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The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center v. Roger Contreras, 01-18-01046-CV (Tex. App – Houston [1st Dist.], May 7, 2019).

In this Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case the First District Court of Appeals held a medical facility does not waive its sovereign immunity by providing, furnishing, or allowing a patient to use tangible personal property.

Roger Contreras went to MD Anderson’s barbershop with the assistance of a nurse, a walker, and a rolling IV pole.  The nurse departed and left the IV pole but took the walker. She informed Contreras he could use the IV pole as an assisting device and did not need the walker. Contreras got up to go to the shampoo station after his haircut, his knee buckled causing him to fall, but when he tried to use the IV pole to catch himself, the pole rolled away. He hit the floor and was injured. Contreras’s medical expert opined that a IV pole is not a proper walking aid.  Contreras sued.  MD Anderson filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. MD Anderson appealed.

Contreras maintains that MD Anderson’s negligent use of a rolling IV pole as a mobility-assistance device (i.e. negligent use of personal property) caused his injuries. He argues that a nurse took his walker away and told him to use the IV pole to get around.  A governmental unit does not use personal property merely by providing, furnishing, or allowing another to use it.  An exception applies when personal property is provided that lacks an integral safety component. However, the exception applies solely when the component is entirely missing; the failure to provide a more effective safety feature does not trigger the exception. Otherwise, for purposes of section 101.021(2), a governmental unit uses tangible personal property if and only if the governmental unit itself is the user of the property. An allegation that the government enabled, authorized, or approved another’s use of the property is not enough.  Non-use is not use.  The court then held MD Anderson’s alleged defects in the plea are immaterial because the questions are jurisdictional. As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack, Justice Goodman and Justice Countiss. Opinion by Justice Goodman. Council for MD Anderson are listed as Joshua Wilson and Kevin D. Molina. The attorney listed for Contreras is Joseph “Joe” Melugin.

Texas Supreme Court holds failure to engage a parking brake is the negligent “operation or use” of a vehicle under TTCA

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Phi, Inc. v Texas Juvenile Justice Dept., 18-0099 (April 26, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal in a Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case where the Texas Supreme Court held jurisdiction exists to determine whether the failure to engage an emergency brake is the “operation or use” of a motor vehicle.

Phi, Inc. owed a helicopter which was located at the bottom of an incline.  When the Texas Juvenile Justice Department parked a bus at the top of the hill and exited, the bus began to roll backwards.  It struck the helicopter causing significant damage. A local police officer investigated the accident. His report states that the accident occurred after the driver placed the vehicle in park and identified as a contributing factor the failure to engage parking brake.  The driver did not dispute the police officer’s finding but later asserted the brake had been broken.

Phi sued.  The Department filed a plea to the jurisdiction.  The court of appeals held no jurisdiction existed. The Court granted review.

Under the TTCA a waiver of immunity requires that the damage “arises from” the operation or use of the vehicle and the statute requires a nexus between the injury negligently caused by a governmental employee and the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle. The evidence the brake was not engaged is a sufficient nexus. With regards to the terms “operation” or “use,” in general courts should strive to give simple words like “operation” and “use” a simple construction, rather than converting them into terms of art intelligible only to experts in the case law. The Court held “In terms of the everyday experience of driving, we think it self-evident that ensuring your car will not roll away after you leave it, including engagement of the emergency brake when necessary, is an integral part of the ‘operation or use’ of a vehicle. It seems no less a part of driving than any other act by which the driver controls the vehicle.” The Court spent the remainder of the opinion explaining why this opinion is consistent with prior caselaw in order to avoid future confusion.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Justice Blacklock. The docket page with attorney information is found here.