County still immune after Plaintiff testified, then changed pleadings to avoid dismissal but asserted facts contrary to testimony

Harris County, Texas v. Stephanie Jo Baker, 01-15-00930-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], April 21, 2016)

This is a negligence case based on injuries allegedly incurred during an arrest. The First District Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the County’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the case.

A deputy with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office arrested Stephanie Jo Baker for the offense of possession of a controlled substance. Baker was handcuffed and transported to the Harris County jail.  The County asserts in a report the deputies had difficulty fingerprinting Baker because she was intoxicated, was cursing at the deputies and had trouble balancing. Fearing that Baker might assault him, “[The deputy] raised his arm in an attempt to stop her and to maintain distance from him. Due to her intoxicated state[,] [Baker] lost balance and fell down on her left side between the concrete benches.” The report reflects that Baker was seen by a jail nurse for a bump on the side of her forehead.  Baker alleges her injuries were caused by the deputy’s negligent use of property, specifically, the handcuffs, concrete benches, “and other tangible personal property in the booking area. ”  Further, Baker testified the deputy hit her head on the concrete bench intentionally. Harris County filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied. The County appealed.

Baker testified in her deposition her injuries were the result of the deputy assaulting her, pulling and braking her wrist and slamming her head into the bench.  Then, after the County filed its plea to the jurisdiction, she amended her pleadings indicating there was no intentional assault, and that her injuries were the result of unintentional but negligent acts of using the handcuffs and bench. She asserted in her pleadings that when the deputy put his hands up she fell and received injuries due to property located in the booking room and/or the restraints that were being improperly used.  The County asserted her pleadings “…carefully deleted all references to violence and slamming and assault by the deputies[,] but the amended pleading does not delete or diminish the actual sworn testimony of Plaintiff Stefanie Jo Baker herself” in which she described the deputy’s intentional and violent conduct. Baker claims that she testified in her deposition that, due to her injuries, she did not have a clear memory of the events that occurred during her arrest and detention at the jail.  Her current claim on appeal that the cited testimony indicates that she does not remember what happened at the jail does not comport with her sworn testimony, given in the same deposition, in which she stated that the deputy intentionally assaulted her.  No waiver of immunity exists for intentional acts. However, even if the court were to look only at the County’s version of events, an act or omission is a cause-in-fact of the injury if it is a substantial factor in causing the injury without which the injury would have not occurred.  Section 101.021(2) of the Tort Claims Act’s waiver of immunity requires more than the property’s mere involvement. No nexus exists between the use of the handcuffs or bench and her alleged injuries. As a result, the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Justice Keyes, Justice Higley and Justice Brown. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Higley. The attorney listed for the County is Keith Toler. The attorneys listed for Baker are Ron S. Rainey and Lloyd Krell.