Texas Supreme Court holds decision to allow erosion of riverbed to remain is discretionary, thereby preserving immunity under TTCA

Tarrant Regional Water District v Johnson, et al., 17-0095 (Tex. April 12, 2019)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case where the Texas Supreme Court held no waiver of immunity exists for the wrongful death action against the Tarrant Regional Water District (District).

Brandy Johnson, while five months pregnant, attempted to cross the Trinity River by walking across Dam #2. She slipped, fell into the river, and drowned.  The District built, then demolished and rebuilt a series of dams as part of an effort to channelize part of the Trinity River to help with flood control.  The parents brought a wrongful death action against the District asserting it maintained the Dam #2. The District filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was denied and the District appealed.

The District’s Director of Operations, testified that rather than filling in the eroded area below the dams and raising the depth to the level existing when the dams were constructed, the dam design engineer for the rebuild decided the deeper river bottom should remain in place to prevent kayakers and tubers from injuring themselves when passing through the chute.  The Plaintiffs alleged that the kayak chute was slippery and that the current running through it was deceptively dangerous. However, § 101.056 of the Tort Claims Act (discretionary functions) allows an entity to retain immunity if the negligent acts complained of were discretionary in nature. The Plaintiffs alleged the claims relating to the deeper river bed (and hydraulic boil) were not related to the original design but a failure to maintain that design, which is not discretionary.  The Court disagreed. The design versus maintenance “test” is simply the policy-level versus operational-level test applied to public works. However, the Court noted neither “design” nor “maintenance” appears in the text of §101.056. For that matter, neither do the terms “policy-level” or “operational-level.” Those terms are useful guides for interpretation, but are not part of the statute. The interpretational rubrics are only useful to the extent they yield results faithful to the statute’s textual distinction between discretionary and non-discretionary government decisions, which the Court recognized as a difficult task. The Court noted the statute’s focus is on preservation of the government’s discretionary decision-making authority, rather than on the often-useful but extratextual distinction between design and maintenance.  The District’s decisions related to the depth of the river at the base of the dam are discretionary design decisions, even at the rebuild level. Further, the Court emphasized the “public work” the District is alleged to have improperly maintained is the natural bed of a flowing river. Analyzing the riverbed as if it were a structural public work already stretches credulity. The notion that the District had a legal obligation to keep this natural “public work” at a constant depth beneath an opaque and running body of water is unsupportable. The Court held the District was immune from suit.

If you wish to read this opinion click here. Justice Blacklock delivered the opinion of the Court. The docket page with the attorney information is found here.