Since injured inmate had observed repair of table and knew it was inadequate, inmate accepted the risk of sitting at table – County therefore not liable under TTCA

Hidalgo County Detention Center v. Isidro Villa Huerta, 13-20-00113-CV, (Tex. App – Corpus Christi & Edinburg, July 22, 2021)

This is a premise liability case under the Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) where the Corpus Christi & Edinburg Court of Appeals reversed a denial of the City’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the claims.

A table in a “day room” at the county jail broke at the base. The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office submitted a “Maintenance Work Order Request Form” for repair of the table that same day. A technician welded the table and returned the form half an hour later, indicating that the problem had been resolved. Huerta, an experienced welder and inmate at the jail, observed the repair performed by the technician.  Two days later, he sat on the table with three other inmates when the same point at the base broke. Huerta asserted he was injured and filed suit. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied. The County appealed.

Under the provisions of the TTCA applicable, the County owed a duty of care not to injure a licensee by willful, wanton or grossly negligent conduct, and to use ordinary care either to warn of or to make reasonably safe, a dangerous condition of which the County is aware and the licensee is not. Although there is no one test for determining actual knowledge that a condition presents an unreasonable risk of harm, courts generally consider whether the premises owner has received reports of prior injuries or reports of the potential danger presented by the condition. If a licensee is aware of a dangerous condition, he has all that he is entitled to expect, that is, an opportunity for an intelligent choice as to whether the advantage to be gained by coming on the land is sufficient to justify him in incurring the risks involved.  The court disagreed with the County and noted the same table had broken at the same place at least three separate times, so a fact issue exists on whether the County had actual notice of the dangerous condition. However, Huerta testified that he observed the table’s repair two days before his fall, and based on his experience, he knew the weld was inadequate to ensure the structural integrity of the table because Hidalgo County’s “in-house maintenance guy” did a “quick tack [weld].” Huerta knowingly decided to sit at the same table. As a result, he was already aware of the danger and accepted the risk. The plea should have been granted.

Panel consists of Chief Justice Contreras, and Justices Benavides and Silva. Reversed and rendered. Memorandum Opinion by Benavides can be read here. Docket page with attorney information found here.

 

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