Texas Supreme Court holds merely following a trespasser is not enough to establish gross negligence

BOERJAN, et al v. J. JESUS RODRIGUEZ et al., 12-0838 (Tex. June 27, 2014)

This Texas Supreme Court case does not involve a local governmental entity, but does involved premise defect and vehicle pursuit claims and a holding which could affect governmental entities.

After being confronted by a ranch hand working on the ranch, a trespasser fled the area and the ranch hand pursued. The trespasser was a “coyote” transporting families from Mexico into the U.S. While fleeing, the trespasser vehicle rolled over killing the occupants. The family sued the ranch and the workers. The trial court granted the various summary judgments for everyone on all claims, but the court of appeals reversed. The “Ranch” defendants appealed.

The Texas Supreme Court first held that the comparative responsibility scheme under Chapter 33 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code abrogated the unlawful acts doctrine. However, the court noted the court of appeals ignored its well settlement holding that the “only duty the premises owner or occupier owes a trespasser is not to injure him wilfully, wantonly, or through gross negligence.” This standard applies to many premise defects for cities, especially under the Recreational Use statute. Additionally, the “gross negligence” standard can apply in vehicle pursuit claims or emergency responder claims.  The Court analyzed the evidence submitted for summary judgment and held it was insufficient to support the breach of a duty to a trespasser. To establish gross negligence requires two elements 1) an objective extreme degree of risk and 2) a subjective awareness of the risk.  While the Plaintiffs argued the ranch hands “chased” the coyote at high speeds, the evidence merely demonstrated the ranch vehicle only came up behind the coyote. No evidence was presented on whether the Ranch vehicle made any aggressive moves, how closely it followed the coyote, or how fast it was traveling. Simply following a trespasser’s truck is a far cry from the sort of objective risk that would give rise to gross negligence. As a result, it was proper to grant the no-evidence summary judgments.

The Court explained that it was reversing only as to the defendants who joined the no-evidence motion for summary judgment and that the defendants who relied solely upon the traditional summary judgment (unlawful acts doctrine arguments) must face trial.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per Curium opinion. The attorneys for all parties can be found here.