Deputy’s detailed analysis of the need to drive a high rate of speed equated to his entitlement to official immunity

Harris County, Texas v. Southern County Mutual Insurance Company, 01-13-00870-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], August 26, 2014)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a summary judgment with jurisdictional challenges in a Texas Tort Claims Act automobile accident case. The 1st District Court of Appeals reversed the denial and dismissed the claims.

County Sheriff’s Deputy Hudson allegedly caused his patrol vehicle to collide with a parked car owned by Franeschi (Southern County Mutual’s insured). The County asserted Deputy Hudson was entitled to official immunity because he was responding to a life-threatening situation (attempted suicide in progress). And since the County is only liable if the deputy is liable, the County can take advantage of Hudson’s official immunity.  The trial court denied the County’s summary judgment and the County appealed.

The Texas Supreme Court articulated a standard of objective legal reasonableness for the measurement of a government official’s good faith, without regard to the official’s subjective state of mind. The Plaintiff must meet a heightened burden to establish that no reasonably prudent officer could have made the same call.  To qualify, the officer must balance the need to perform the action (driving 80 mph in a 30 mph zone) with the risks.  The County attached detailed evidence and testimony where Deputy Hudson explained that he took into account the time of day, lighting, weather, traffic, the rural nature of the area along the roadway, familiarity with the roadway, and experience of driving at high speeds as well as the training provided for responding to attempted suicides in determining that the need for that level of speed outweighed the potential harm. In other words, the deputy explained exactly why the need outweighed the risk and all of the factors considered in coming to that conclusion. The fact the deputy was reprimanded by the County for causing the accident does not negate his analysis at the time. Based on that very detailed and specific information, the court held he was entitled to official immunity and therefore the County was immune.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Jennings, Justice Higley and Justice Sharp.  Memorandum Opinion by Justice Jennings.  The attorneys listed for the County are Vince Ryan and Stephen A. Smith.  The attorneys listed for Southern Country are Christopher A. Fusselman  and Jason E. Wells.