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Actual Knowledge in a Texas Slip and Fall

In a recent Texas premises liability decision, the court considered a slip and fall that occurred in the Corrections Center. A woman was going with her family member to pretrial services when she slipped on water in the hallway. She sued the county, and it claimed it had governmental immunity that barred her claims.

A pretrial services caseworker saw the puddle in front of the men’s restroom, which was in an alcove separate from the hall where the plaintiff slipped. When the caseworker saw it, the puddle was about two feet long and didn’t go into the hallway. She told support staff about the puddle, and it was their procedure to call maintenance. She assumed they didn’t but didn’t know.

An hour later, the plaintiff slipped on the water that had progressed into the hallway. The caseworker didn’t see the fall but saw her there afterward. Later, she would testify that the puddle had flowed into the hallway, although she admitted she hadn’t seen the initial puddle move or flow when she saw it.

The plaintiff sued the county for negligence and premises defects. She pled that its governmental immunity was waived under the Texas Tort Claims Act (the TTCA) because the injuries had been caused by a property defect that presented an unreasonable risk of harm, about which the county had actual knowledge and she didn’t, and for which the county should be held accountable under Texas law, as it would be if it were a private property owner.

The County argued she hadn’t pled and couldn’t prove the waiver of immunity. It argued that she hadn’t pled negligence falling within the waiver and that the evidence showed it didn’t know about water in the hall before the plaintiff’s fall. To its jurisdictional plea, it attached a deposition transcript, an affidavit with an attached floor plan, deposition excerpts, and other affidavits, including one to authenticate video surveillance footage of the plaintiff’s fall.

After the denial of the plea, the county appealed. It argued that the Texas Tort Claims Act didn’t waive the county’s governmental immunity for the plaintiff’s negligence claims because the claims didn’t involve the use or condition of personal property, and the law didn’t waive immunity for the premises liability claim because the evidence showed the county didn’t have actual knowledge about the water.

The appellate court explained that unless it was waived, governmental immunity protected counties from suit. There is a limited waiver for personal injuries triggered by the use or condition of tangible real property or personal property in situations in which liability would be imposed on a private individual for the same use or condition. Simply referring to the Texas Tort Claims Act in a petition doesn’t create an immunity waiver.

Instead, a plaintiff needs to affirmatively show jurisdiction by claiming a valid waiver of immunity. Here, the plaintiff’s negligence claims didn’t fall within the waiver because they didn’t involve the condition or use of property. The Texas Tort Claims Act didn’t waive immunity from suit for injuries created by a failure to put up warning signs. The governmental unit’s duty in premises liability cases is limited to the duty a private person owes to a licensee on private property. In order to establish an immunity waiver, the plaintiff needed to show willful, wanton, or grossly negligent conduct or that the defendant actually knew about the dangerous condition, while the plaintiff didn’t, and the defendant failed to provide warnings about the condition. There was no allegation of willful conduct. The County admitted actual knowledge about the water in the alcove but not the water in the hall. Accordingly, the court reversed and dismissed the claims for lack of jurisdiction.

If you have been injured as a result of an accident on someone else’s property, the San Antonio premises liability 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.