Police car did not cause the accident so no waiver of immunity says 4th Court of Appeals

Police car did not cause the accident so no waiver of immunity says 4th Court of Appeals

Lopez, et al v. Escobar, 04-13-00151-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, August 28, 2013).

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdictions (which the appellate court reversed) in a personal injury/Texas Tort Claims Act case. Escobar alleges a County patrol car, with its lights activated, was pursuing a pickup truck when the truck crossed traffic and collided with Excobar’s vehicle. She alleges the negligent operation or use of a motor vehicle waives immunity from suit since the officer’s vehicle directed the truck into her lane of traffic. The County and other defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied and the County appealed.  The Court of Appeals disagreed with trial court and dismissed the case. This case does not represent a significant deviation from established law but does clarify/distinguish this type of situation from some other cases commonly used to try and attribute liability.

The Fourth Court of Appeals first noted that none of the submitted evidence was disputed, so all that remains are questions of law. The officers involved did chase a white truck while having their lights on as there was a report of the vehicle carrying what the court called “undocumented individuals.”  At one point, the truck came to a crawl/stop in the middle of a median. The officers got out of the car and instructed the driver to come to a complete stop since it was inching forward. Without warning the driver accelerated into the oncoming traffic, striking Lopez and causing her injuries.

Lopez argues that by chasing the driver into the median, the officers controlled the vehicle to some extent and therefore were responsible for its operation when it darted into her lane of traffic. Several cases note that liability will attach even if the operator is not an employee as long as an employee has control over the operation. Saramanee v. Town of Northlake, No. 02-10-00152-CV, 2011 WL 944908 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth, March 17, 2011, pet. denied) (mem. op.), Junemann v. Harris County, 84 S.W.3d 689 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied); and City of El Campo v. Rubio, 980 S.W.2d 943 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1998, pet. dism’d w.o.j.).  The court took the time to distinguish each case and essentially noted that by chasing the vehicle, the officers were not “directing, forcing or coercing” the vehicle and therefore cannot be held responsible. The fact a patrol car was used is not sufficient to waive immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The court reversed the denial of the plea and dismissed the case.

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