Patrol lights distracting motorist not a waiver of immunity says 4th Court of Appeals

Ryder Integrated Logistics, Inc. et al v. Fayette County, 04-13-00082-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, August 30, 2013).

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act case involving a patrol vehicle in which the trial court granted the County’s plea to the jurisdiction and the plaintiff appealed.

A Fayette County sheriff’s deputy pulled over an 18-wheeled truck driven by Molina. Molina’s truck began to roll backwards after the stop and the deputy repositioned his vehicle in a grassy area to the right of the roadway (although facing oncoming traffic). A second 18-wheeler (a Ryder truck), driven by Solis approached the area, struck the back of Molina’s truck, caught fire, and Solis died. Molina sued Ryder who filed a third-party claim against the County asserting the deputy’s lights shown in the eyes of Solis contributing to the accident. Solis’ heirs joined suit against the County.  The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court granted and Ryder appealed.

The Fourth Court of Appeals held that in order to establish a nexus between the operation or use of a motor vehicle (which triggers a waiver of sovereign immunity) and an injury, the vehicle must do more than provide the condition that made the injury possible. A “distraction” of lights is properly classified as furnishing the condition around the accident as opposed to causing the accident. The court distinguished many of Ryder’s cases noting a waiver of immunity exists, including one where the failure to use emergency lights constituted a waiver. The holding struck me as more in-line with the principles of immunity than the cases which held a waiver existed. However, the maze of comparisons a local entity’s attorney must navigate in the area cannot be understated. So, be aware that even though this court held distracting lights does not waive immunity in this case, plenty of fine lines exists giving plaintiff attorneys ammunition.

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