Fourth Court of Appeals holds that operation of wheelchair ramp on public bus does not trigger waiver of immunity under Tort Claims Act

 

VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority v. Manuel Flores, No. 04-21-00233-CV (Tex.App.—San Antonio, August 3, 2022)

This case stems from a trial court’s denial of VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (“VIA”) plea to the jurisdiction, alleging no waiver of immunity exists for the claims. The Fourth Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling and dismisses all claims against VIA.

Manuel Flores (“Flores”) uses a motorized wheelchair. Several VIA buses, which provide public transportation, are equipped with wheelchair ramp devices that allow for accessibility to and from the bus.  When a VIA bus picked up Flores, the VIA driver lowered the wheelchair ramp and began preparing the wheelchair-accessible area of the bus to secure Flores once the bus resumed movement. While the driver was in the middle of preparations, Flores unsuccessfully attempted to board the bus.  He did not align the wheels of his wheelchair with the ramp, and fell to the ground, injuring himself.  Flores sued VIA, claiming the driver’s negligent operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle, specifically the bus and/or automated ramp device, established a waiver under the Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”).

The Fourth Court of Appeals held that, under the ordinary, everyday meaning of the words “operation” and “use,” the deployment of a wheelchair ramp and preparation of the wheelchair-accessible area did not constitute helping Flores board the bus. Further, even if doing so did constitute the operation of the bus, the appellate court found that there was no nexus between Flores’ injury and the operation or use of the vehicle. Video recordings and time-stamped screenshots were admitted showing Flores’ unsuccessful attempt to board the bus, which included the driver still preparing the internal area away from where Flores fell. Since the driver was unaware that Flores had fallen until after the fact and because the driver did not even have an opportunity to assist Flores with boarding the bus, the court held that there would have been no nexus between Flores’ injury and the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle.

As asides, the appellate court dismissed Flores’ argument that the driver failed to follow VIA policy, as Flores first had to establish waiver of immunity before invoking a claim. Further, Flores’ arguments citing compliance with federal law were moot because he not only failed to raise them at the trial level but also because the cited law did not waive VIA’s immunity. Ultimately, the Fourth Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of VIA’s plea to the jurisdiction, dismissing all of Flores’ claims.

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