The emergency exception to the Tort Claims not grounds for jurisdictional plea when factual disputes exist regarding an officer’s recklessness

Special contributing author Laura Mueller, City Attorney for Dripping Springs

City of Houston v. Crystal Green, No. 14-20-00190-CV (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Jan. 11, 2022) (mem. op.).

In this appeal from a trial court’s denial of the city’s motion for summary judgment, the city argued that it retained its immunity from suit under the emergency exception to the Texas Tort Claims Act.  The Fourteenth Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment because there was evidence that the officer may have been reckless when driving his vehicle during the emergency.

The plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident with a city police officer collided with her vehicle.  The plaintiff sued the city under the Texas Tort Claims Act.  The city argued in a summary judgment motion that it retained its immunity from suit because the officer was heading to an emergency when the accident occurred and because the officer had official immunity.  Evidence was presented that the officer may have entered the intersection where the accident occurred at a high rate of speed and without his sirens on.  The trial court denied the City’s motion for summary judgment and the city appealed.

The Tort Claims Act waives governmental immunity for injuries or damages caused by use of a motor vehicle.  See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021; Tex. Dep’t of Transp. v. Able, 35 S.W.3d 608, 611 (Tex. 2000).  Immunity is retained for damages caused due to actions that are covered by the “emergency exception,” which covers the “action of an employee while responding to an emergency call or reacting to an emergency situation.  Id. § 101.055.  But the action must not be done with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety to others.  Id.  In addition, the Texas Transportation Code requires that emergency vehicles be operated safely and without “reckless disregard for the safety of others.”  Tex. Transp. Code § 546.005.   There was evidence presented in the case that raised a fact issue of whether the officer’s operation of the vehicle that caused the injuries and damages was reckless. Because there was evidence of reckless disregard, the trial court did not grant the summary judgment in favor of the city.  The court of appeals agreed and upheld the denial of the summary judgment motion remanding the case back to the trial court.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.   Panel consists of Chief Justice Christopher and  Justices Hassan and Poissant.  Opinion by Justice Margaret “Meg” Poissant.