Texas Supreme Court holds supervisor’s order to use tear-gas gun was “use” under TTCA, but riot exception preserved immunity

Texas Dept. Crim. Justice v Cesar Rangel, 18-0721, (Tex. Feb. 7, 2020)

This is a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) case where the Texas Supreme Court held the Department of Criminal Justice (“Department”) retained immunity for hitting an inmate with a tear-gas shell.

Two groups of inmates were threatening each other in  The Pam Lychner State Jail.  The groups totaled approximately thirty (30) inmates. After giving orders to cease hostilities for almost an hour, which were ignored, Department officials ordered a guard to fire tear-gas (including a skat shell) at the groups.  A “skat shell” launches five pyrotechnic submunitions that are designed to deliver chemical agents at a range of up to eighty meters. The shell hit Rangel, injuring him. Rangel sued.  The Department conducted an internal use-of-force review that “revealed several mistakes” as to how the incident was handled, noting that the skat shell was “designed for outdoor areas” only and “that chemical agents should have been administered through the door rather than in the middle of the housing area.” The official who authorized the use indoors was disciplined. The Department filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied.

The Texas Supreme Court held the supervisor’s order to use the tear-gas gun was a “use of tangible personal property” under the TTCA. It was not the use by the individual guard following orders, but was a “use” by the supervisor who authorized an order the gun be put into play. The distinguishing factor is the order by the supervisor specifically to use the weapon, and not merely making the weapon available to the guard with no direction. [Comment: the Court spent multiple pages in the opinion on this distinction.] This also had an interplay with the court of appeals opinion on the intentional tort exceptions. However, the immunity waiver does not apply to a claim “based on an injury or death connected with any act or omission arising out of civil disobedience, riot, insurrection, or rebellion.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 101.057(1). Rangel argued that the circumstances did not constitute a riot or there was a fact issue as to whether a riot existed. Using the plain and ordinary meaning of the term “riot” also includes how the term is used in other statutes, including the Penal Code. The Penal Code defines “riot” in part as “the assemblage of seven or more persons resulting in conduct” that “creates an immediate danger of damage to property or injury to persons.” TEX. PENAL CODE § 42.02(a). While not identical, that definition is in line with the ordinary meaning of “riot,” emphasizing not only the size of assemblage and nature of the events but also the immediate danger.  As a result, the undisputed facts of the case constitute a riot as a matter of law. As a result, no waiver of immunity exists and the plea should have been granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Lehrmann.  Docket page found here.