County fully dismissed in shooting death case; Fact question exists on Deputy’s qualified immunity

Delores Escobar, Individually, as Representative of the Estate of Luis Manuel Escobar, and as Next Friend of Luis Alberto Escobar, a Minor v. Harris County, Texas and Eric Goodney, Cause No. 01-12-00391-CV (Tex. App.- Houston [1st District] July 31, 2014)

This is an excessive force case under 42 U.S.C. §1983 arising out of a shooting death at the hands of a Harris County deputy.  The Houston Court of Appeals for First District affirmed the dismissal of the County, but reversed and remanded as to the deputies entitlement to qualified immunity.

Escobar was speeding and deputy Goodney undertook chase. After a high-speed chase, Escobar crashed but attempted to flee from the scene. Goodney shot him in the back killing him. Goodney asserted he was in fear for his life when he saw Escobar reach into his waist band while a fleeing and believed he had a gun. After an internal committee reviewed the accounts, it found the force was justified.  Goodney’s family sued.  The trial court granted Goodney’s summary judgment as to qualified immunity and the County’s plea to the jurisdiction (tort claims) and summary judgment (constitutional claims). Escobar appealed.

The court first held that Escobar’s tort claims for wrongful death did not establish a waiver of sovereign immunity.  There is no waiver for negligent training.  Further, Goodney did not negligently use his firearm, he intentionally used his firearm and no waiver exists for intentional acts. As a result, the plea to the jurisdiction was proper as to the tort claims against the County. The County presented affidavits establishing TCLEOSE set training standards which Deputy Goodney satisfied and the County had a specific policy on the use of force. Escobar’s counter affidavit was merely conclusory statements and did not create a genuine issue of material fact to establish §1983 liability on the County for either a failure to train or failure to supervise.  Regarding Goodney’s qualified immunity defense, the court went through a detailed analysis of the record and evidence. The events occurred on the side of a roadway and several eye witnesses provided testimony on what they observed. While none of the witnesses were in the same position or angle as the Deputy to discount what Goodney claimed to have seen, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Escobar, they all testified Escobar was running away from the scene. None established any corroboration that Escobar posed a threat to Goodney.  As a result, there is a fact question as to whether Goodney had an objective good faith belief his life was in danger. The court reversed the grant of qualified immunity and remanded for trial.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel: Justice Keyes, Justice Higley and Justice Massengale. Opinion by Justice Massengale. Attorneys for Appellant Escorbar are David Paz and Eddie Gomez. Attorneys for Appellee Harris County and Eric Goodney are Barbara Callistein, Bruce Powers and Mary Baker.