Town of Highland Park v. Tiffany Renee McCullers, individually and for the benefit of Calvin Marcus McCullers and Calvin Bennett McCullers and ANF of C.J., Minor, and Sonya Hoskins, et al, 05-19-01431-CV, (Tex. App – Dallas, June 29, 2021)
This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case in which the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed the denial of the Town’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claims.
The Town had a program to provide extra-duty work to various police officers in the area, but which was at the request of private citizens. The Town offered a security service assignment to Southern Methodist University (“SMU”) police officer Calvin Marcus McCullers (“Officer McCullers”) to guard a private residence under construction. After accepting the assignment, Officer McCullers sat for just over an hour in his car on the property. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning. Heavy rains occurred over the property so much that water rose up the sides of his vehicle. Seconds later, Officer McCullers opened the passenger door, stepped out of the vehicle, lost his footing, and the water swept him and his vehicle over an embankment at the edge of the Property. Officer McCullers did not survive. The family sued the City under general negligence and premise liability theories. The Town filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The Town appealed.
It is undisputed that Plaintiffs did not provide written notice to the Town of their claims within six months of the accident, however, the Plaintiffs assert the Town had actual notice of the claims. Actual notice under section 101.101(c) requires evidence that the government had knowledge of its alleged fault in causing or contributing to the claimant’s injury. The issue is not whether the City should have made the connection between injury and responsibility as alleged, but whether the City made the connection or had knowledge that the connection had been made. The Town (i) acted on and investigated Officer McCullers’s request for rescue and (ii) learned of Officer McCullers’s death. However, those acts and the knowledge of Officer McCullers’s death are not sufficient to establish actual notice under the TTCA. Further, even if the Town had knowledge of the area’s general propensity for flooding, such is insufficient. The Texas Supreme Court has held the City’s knowledge of torrential rains did not establish actual knowledge of flooding at a specific location. As a result, no notice was provided. Further, as to the Plaintiff’s premise liability claim, the Town did not own the property. Plaintiffs assert the Town had an easement on the property. However, the record shows that (i) the Town had neither a possessory interest nor an ownership interest in the land located within the easement, (ii) the easement did not give the Town authority to control or maintain the land located within the easement, and (iii) the Town had not used the easement for some years before July 5, 2016. Finally, the actions of the Town were not proprietary. TTCA section 101.0215 enumerates “police and fire protection and control” as the first in the statutory list of governmental functions. The extra-duty jobs were provided only to certified law enforcement officers. Officer McCullers was serving in a police capacity at the time of his death. As a result, the plea should have been granted.
The Concurring opinion focused more on the proprietary-governmental dichotomy. Texas courts have consistently held that when a city’s police activities are aimed at crime prevention, such activities are necessarily governmental. Since such was a governmental function, Plaintiffs failed to provide proper notice.
The Dissent would hold the coordination of off-duty officers was proprietary. The Town coordinated private security services for private property owners, not the general public.
Panel consists of Chief Justice Burns, and Justices Pedersen and Goldstein. Reversed and dismissed. Opinion by Justice Pedersen can be read here. Dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Burns can be read here. Concurring Opinion by Justice Goldstein can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.