No waiver of immunity after police chase ends it death of third-party

Williams, et al  v. The City of Baytown, 01-14-00569-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], May 5, 2015)

This is a police chase case where a shoplifter fleeing from police collided with a stopped car, killing one occupant and injuring another.

Two shoplifters ran from police, evaded a police barricade by striking a parked police car, and raced down Baytown streets weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds. Responding police officers followed at slower speeds while another responding officer (Loyd) placed a spike strip (tire deflation device) on the roadway. After encountering the strip, the suspect vehicle traveled approximately 200 feet before rear-ending a car stopped at a red light, killing a teenage occupant and injuring the teenage driver. The families sued the City of Baytown alleging the police negligently caused the accident. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted.

Baytown asserted that it was immune because its officers’ alleged negligent conduct does not fall within the Texas Tort Claims Act’s limited waiver of immunity (no governmental vehicle or property was involved in the crash), or if it does, the emergency exception to the waiver applies, and the conduct alleged was not reckless as a matter of law. Court rejected the notion that immunity was waived simply because a collision took place in the context of a police chase because “[t]he causal nexus is not satisfied by the mere involvement of a vehicle, nor by an operation or use that ‘does no more than furnish the condition that makes the injury possible.’” The court distinguished the recent Texas Supreme Court’s Ryder case where an officer blinded oncoming traffic with his lights, noting the officer in Ryder’s faulty driving caused the blinding and triggered the proper nexus. Here, the officers’ use of chase vehicles did not directly cause the accident, so no waiver exists. Further, the individual officer’s failure to control the fleeing suspects within a parking lot (which occurred prior to the chase) also did not establish a proper nexus. Next the court determined that the use of the deflation spikes did not amount to a waiver. The court analyzed the affidavits to opposing experts on tire deflation and indulged all reasonable inferences in favor of the Plaintiffs. However, their expert was unable to directly assert the deflating tires caused the fleeing driver to lose control. He was only able to assert it was a possibility, just as other possibilities exist for the loss of control. To constitute a causal nexus, there must be some evidence that a loss of control in fact happened and that the fleeing driver had attempted to avoid the crash but was thwarted because his tire was punctured by the strip. Without this evidence, the officer’s deployment of the spike strip cannot be sufficiently linked to the injuries. And since this issue is dispositive, the court declined to address the emergency exception to waiver or official immunity defense.  The plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Chief Justice Radack, Justice Bland and Justice Huddle. Opinion by Justice Bland.  The attorney listed for the Plaintiffs is Joshua Paul Davis. The attorneys listed for the City are Steven D. Selbe, Alex E. Cosculluela and Andrew Scott.