Trial court has jurisdiction to allow Plaintiff time to establish repair time between notice of light failure and accident was reasonable

The City of Beaumont v. Cody Garrett and Cherry Jones Gates, 09-15-00093-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, December 10, 2015).

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction in a Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”) defective traffic control device case. The Beaumont Court of Appeals affirmed the denial.

Vehicles driven by Garrett and Gates collided in an intersection where the traffic control light had malfunctioned and was not operational at the time. Gates testified that she did not stop before entering the intersection even though she knew the stoplight at the intersection was not working. Garrett testified he noticed that the traffic light was not working but a fact issue exists as to whether stopped before entering the intersection. Garrett sued Gates and the City claiming they were negligent.  Garrett asserted the City failed to repair the stoplight at the intersection even though it had been notified that the stoplight was out.  [Comment: while not in the record, the panel noted the City’s counsel advised during oral arguments that it had received notice 30 to 90 minutes prior to the accident that the light was out.]  The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court denied.

The TTCA creates liability only if the malfunction in the signal “is not corrected by the responsible governmental unit within a reasonable time after notice.”  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §101.060(a)(2) (West 2011).  While the evidence showed the City had notice the light was not working, no evidence existed showing the exact nature of the problem with the light or explaining how long it should have taken a reasonably prudent governmental entity to correct such a problem. That being said, the court was within its power to allow the parties time to develop those issues through discovery. Further, with regards to malfunctioning traffic lights, the duty the municipality owes to the travelling public is to “use ordinary care to reduce or eliminate the unreasonable risk of harm posed by the malfunction within a reasonable time after being notified of the absence, condition, or malfunction of a traffic signal.”  The trial court had jurisdiction to allow the parties to explore whether the 30-90 minute interval was a reasonable time to allow correction. As a result, the court properly denied the plea.  [Comment: Essentially, the court is holding that since the City did not establish through evidence that 30-90 minutes was unreasonable (even though that time period was not in the record before the trial court), the Plaintiff is not required to show (through supporting evidence) the time period is reasonable for jurisdictional purposes and relieves the Plaintiff from having to support that element in response to a plea.]

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Kreger, Justice Horton and Justice Johnson.  Opinion by Justice Horton.  The attorneys listed for the City are Tyrone Cooper and Sharae Reed.  The attorney listed for Gates is Vervie F Jones-White.  The attorneys listed for Garrette are Jonathan Juhan and J. J. Bragg.