Texas Supreme Court holds failure to engage a parking brake is the negligent “operation or use” of a vehicle under TTCA

Phi, Inc. v Texas Juvenile Justice Dept., 18-0099 (April 26, 2019)

This is an interlocutory appeal in a Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) case where the Texas Supreme Court held jurisdiction exists to determine whether the failure to engage an emergency brake is the “operation or use” of a motor vehicle.

Phi, Inc. owed a helicopter which was located at the bottom of an incline.  When the Texas Juvenile Justice Department parked a bus at the top of the hill and exited, the bus began to roll backwards.  It struck the helicopter causing significant damage. A local police officer investigated the accident. His report states that the accident occurred after the driver placed the vehicle in park and identified as a contributing factor the failure to engage parking brake.  The driver did not dispute the police officer’s finding but later asserted the brake had been broken.

Phi sued.  The Department filed a plea to the jurisdiction.  The court of appeals held no jurisdiction existed. The Court granted review.

Under the TTCA a waiver of immunity requires that the damage “arises from” the operation or use of the vehicle and the statute requires a nexus between the injury negligently caused by a governmental employee and the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle. The evidence the brake was not engaged is a sufficient nexus. With regards to the terms “operation” or “use,” in general courts should strive to give simple words like “operation” and “use” a simple construction, rather than converting them into terms of art intelligible only to experts in the case law. The Court held “In terms of the everyday experience of driving, we think it self-evident that ensuring your car will not roll away after you leave it, including engagement of the emergency brake when necessary, is an integral part of the ‘operation or use’ of a vehicle. It seems no less a part of driving than any other act by which the driver controls the vehicle.” The Court spent the remainder of the opinion explaining why this opinion is consistent with prior caselaw in order to avoid future confusion.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Opinion by Justice Blacklock. The docket page with attorney information is found here.