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Can A Private Engineering Firm Have Sovereign Immunity From Personal Injury Lawsuits in Texas?

In Brown and Gay Engineering, Inc. v. Zuleima Olivares, the Texas Supreme Court decided an important issue related to sovereign immunity in personal injury lawsuits. The case arose when a drunk driver entered the exit ramp of Westpark Tollway and drove east in the westbound lanes for eight miles before crashing into a driver. Both of them were killed. The part of the road where they died was under the control of the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority, a local government corporation that was created to design and build it.

The Authority had contracted with the defendant, an engineering firm, in accord with Texas Transportation Code section 431.066(b). This code section allows local governments to retain an engineer to develop a transportation system or facility. The engineering firm was responsible for providing the necessary equipment and personnel and for obtaining insurance for the project.

The mother of the victim of the drunk driving accident sued the engineering firm and others, arguing that the failure to design proper signs and other devices near the exit ramp where the drunk driver entered had legally caused the victim’s death. The Authority filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming governmental immunity, which was denied by the trial court. The appellate court reversed, holding the Authority had sovereign immunity based on its discretionary acts related to traffic safety devices. When the case went back to the trial court, the plaintiff nonsuited the government.

The engineering firm filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming it was the Authority’s employee being sued in its official capacity and was entitled to governmental immunity as well. The trial court granted the plea, but the court of appeals reversed. The appellate court found that the engineering firm was an independent contractor, not the Authority’s employee.

In asking the Texas Supreme Court to review the case, the engineering firm argued its independent contractor status didn’t prevent it from claiming sovereign immunity. Among other things, it argued that the purpose of sovereign immunity was served by extending it to private entities performing governmental functions for the government, for which the government would be immune from suit.

The Court explained that sovereign immunity developed as a common law doctrine. It was to protect the State from lawsuits for money damages, leaving to the Legislature the determination of when tax resources could be shifted toward defending lawsuits. The engineering firm argued that sovereign immunity should extent to private entities that contracted to perform functions of the government unless a statute said otherwise. The Court disagreed, finding that the engineering firm cited no evidence to show that the firm’s exposure to defense costs and a money judgment would affect the cost of the project to the government. It found that sovereign immunity was designed to protect against unexpected expenses arising from paying judgments and defending itself from suit. Even if holding the engineering firm liable for its action in performing a government contract indirectly led to higher overall costs to the government in engaging private contractors, these costs would be reflected in a negotiated contract price that would allow the government to plan its expenses.

The Court held that private parties exercising independent discretion in carrying out a government contract are not entitled to sovereign immunity from suit.

Suing the government or its contractors for personal injuries can be challenging because of added defenses and shortened time frames within which to bring suit. The experienced San Antonio personal injury attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to help you. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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