Texas Supreme Court holds immunity is waived for deputy’s re-positioning of patrol vehicle causing lights to hit oncoming traffic

RYDER INTEGRATED LOGISTICS, INC. v. FAYETTE COUNTY, TEXAS, 13-0968 (Tex. February 6, 2015)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case involving a motor vehicle collision of two eighteen-wheelers and involves the interpretation of Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §101.021(1)(a)(i.e. injury “arising from the operation or use” of a motor vehicle by a governmental employee.) The Texas Supreme Court reversed the trial courts grant of a plea to the jurisdiction and remanded for trial.

Deputy Sheriff Thumann stopped Ralph Molina (18-wheeler driver) for a minor traffic violation. Molina parked his eighteen-wheeler on the shoulder just right of the eastbound lanes. When Molina’s truck began rolling backward toward Thumann’s cruiser, Thumann repositioned his vehicle. He drove up the grassy berm to his right and then turned his cruiser so that it faced eastbound traffic, though it remained in the grass to the right of the shoulder. The cruiser’s headlights and high-beam spotlight were illuminated, as were its emergency lights. Within seconds of the cruiser turning to face oncoming traffic, and while Thumann was still repositioning it, an eastbound Ryder eighteen-wheeler driven by Roberto Solis, Sr., veered right and clipped the back of Molina’s trailer. The collision caused Solis’s truck to overturn and ignite. Solis did not survive the fire. Molina subsequently sued Ryder and Solis’s estate, alleging that Molina sustained personal injury. Ryder then filed this third-party claim against Fayette County, alleging that Thumann’s negligence caused the accident. Specifically, Ryder alleges that Solis was blinded or distracted by the cruiser’s headlights, which the County concedes were directed at oncoming traffic. The County filed a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court granted and the court of appeals affirmed. Ryder appealed.

After going through the standard for determining whether an accident “arising” from the use of a motor vehicle, the court determined Ryder has at least pled such a use. Thumann was operating the vehicle and the one who turned the vehicle and lights into oncoming traffic. And while Thumann was not operating the headlights in and of themselves, he was operating the vehicle which pointed the lights directly into oncoming traffic. The Court noted that it was expressing no opinion as to Thumann’s actual culpability and rejected the County’s request to hold his actions non-negligent as a matter of law. Ryder properly alleges a nexus and proximate cause of the accident as being attributed to the repositioning of the vehicle so its headlights could potentially blind oncoming drivers and cause the accident. Whether that is what happened still remains to be seen and is a fact question for the jury. However, it is sufficient to confer jurisdiction on the court to determine. And while the “Move Over Act” found under Tex. Transp. Code § 545.157 which requires drivers to slow down or move over to another lane when approaching an emergency vehicle may not have been followed, that goes to Ryder’s proportionate responsibility, not the jurisdiction of the court.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. This is a per curium opinion. The attorneys listed for Ryder are Mr. Ryan G. Anderson and Mr. Keith Kendall.  The attorney listed for the County is Mr. Charles S. Frigerio.