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Texas Wrongful Death Arising Out of Police Officer Failure to Use Seatbelt

seatbeltIn a recent Texas wrongful death case, the plaintiffs claimed that at about 3:30 in the morning, a police officer put the decedent in the back of a patrol car. She wasn’t seatbelted in, or else she wasn’t properly seatbelted. The defendant’s car hit the patrol car in an intersection after running a red light. As a result, the decedent was thrown from the patrol car and suffered serious and ultimately fatal injuries.

The defendant admitted to officers she’d just left a bar nearby. She was taken to a hospital and determined to be drunk. The decedent’s family filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging the officer acted within the course and scope of her employment with the city. According to the plaintiffs, the officer was driving a city-owned car, negligently failed to use a seatbelt on the decedent, which allowed her to be thrown out of the patrol car, and failed to keep a lookout. The lawsuit also alleged the officer failed to slow, failed to hit the brakes appropriately, failed to take evasive action, handcuffed the decedent when she wasn’t under arrest, didn’t follow proper procedures related to seatbelts, and improperly provided police protection. The plaintiffs argued that the officer’s negligence was the legal cause of the decedent’s death, and the City was vicariously liable.

The plaintiffs claimed that the city had waived governmental immunity for a death caused by the use of tangible personal property like handcuffs and damages resulting from governmental functions like police protection. The City argued there was no subject matter jurisdiction. It argued that the officer had received a call about a suspected drunk driver and found the decedent sitting next to her car so drunk she couldn’t stand up. The officer was taking her to the Sobering Center. The drunk driver later pled guilty to intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. The city argued that it was undisputed the drunk driver caused the accident, so the city hadn’t waived its Texas Tort Claims Act immunity based on the officer’s use of the car.

The plaintiffs argued that the city had waived immunity because the city’s officer was operating the car at the time of the crash, and her use of the car provided a connection to the decedent’s death. The death was partly because of the collision and partly because she wasn’t seatbelted when the crash happened. The use of seatbelts is one reason for the operation and use of the car, and it was foreseeable that not properly seatbelting a passenger in the back of a car could lead to her being ejected and hurt or killed.

The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment. The appellate court explained that without a waiver, cities like other political subdivisions of the state are entitled to immunity from lawsuits for monetary damages. The intent to waive immunity needs to be clear and unambiguous under Texas Government Code section 311.034. The TTCA provides that a governmental unit can be liable for personal injuries, property damage, or death that is legally caused by an employee’s wrongful act or negligence. An officer’s flawed execution of policy, such as one related to seatbelting, can give rise to a claim of negligence.

In this case, the undisputed evidence showed that the officer’s decision not to put a seatbelt on the decedent allowed her to be thrown out of the back window in the crash and was a substantial factor in causing her injuries. Police policy required the officer to belt passengers such as the decedent because injuries or death from not seatbelting were foreseeable.

The order denying the city’s plea to the jurisdiction was affirmed.

If a loved one dies as a result of negligence, the San Antonio wrongful death attorneys at Carabin & Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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