Texas Supreme Court holds City is immune for officer’s negligent use of handcuffs

THE CITY OF WATAUGA v. RUSSELL GORDON, 13-0012 (Tex. June 6, 2014).

This is an interlocutory appeal in a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the question is whether the improper use of handcuffs during an arrest states a claim for battery as opposed to negligent use of tangible personal property. The Court determined the underlying claim is one for battery for which the City maintains immunity.

Watauga police officers stopped Russell Gordon on suspicion of drunk driving. He was handcuffed upon arrest and again at the jail, both times complaining the cuffs were too tight. Later he sued for injuries sustained by the “negligent use” of the cuffs during the arrest. The City responded with a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court denied and the court of appeals affirmed.

The Court first determined that it had interlocutory jurisdiction. It then examined the concepts of assault and battery and determined the City relies on the definition of “battery” in its arguments since no harm was intended by the use of the cuffs but only offensive bodily contact. The Court spend some time explaining away the court of appeal’s reasoning that Gordon consented to the arrest and therefore negated a claim for battery, leaving only negligent use. The use of handcuffs is by nature “offensive contact” and a battery. Gordon’s pleadings assert that he protested repeatedly that the handcuffs were too tight and causing him pain. And while the officers involved did not intent to injure, intent to injure is not an essential element. The gravamen of Gordon’s complaint against the City is that its police officers used excessive force in effecting his arrest. Claims of excessive force in the context of a lawful arrest arise out of a battery rather than negligence, whether the excessive force was intended or not.  The officers certainly meant to apply the cuffs and apply offensive contact, but are privileged to do so as enforcers of the law. A police officer’s mistaken or accidental use of more force than reasonably necessary to make an arrest still “arises out of” the battery claim. And since the TTCA does not waive immunity for intentional torts like battery, the City maintains immunity.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Devine. The attorney for the City of Watauga is listed as Mr. Joe C. Tooley.  The attorney listed for the Texas Municipal League (Amicus) is Mr. Ramon G. Viada III.  The attorney listed for Gordon is Mr. Kenneth Peter Trosclair.