(December 28, 2022) In a previous post, we discussed search and seizure laws pertaining to automobiles. We saw how a warrantless vehicle search must meet two requirements: probable cause and mobility. But how much of the vehicle can police officers search under this rule? If they see evidence of illegal contraband (illegal substances, for example), do they have the ability to search the entire vehicle? What about bags or locked containers in the passenger compartment or trunk? Let’s take a look at what’s covered under the mobile conveyance exception – and what is not.
Articles Posted in Government Liability
Can the Police Search My Car Without a Warrant?
(December 28, 2022) The United States Supreme Court case Mapp v. Ohio established the historic exclusionary rule, which forbids any evidence collected illegally to be used in court, which is consistent with the fourth amendment that protects against unreasonable search and seizure. However, this rule created a tricky situation for traffic officers. It frequently happened that traffic officers had probable cause to believe that illegal activity was being enabled by automobiles. However, by the time they came back with a warrant to search the vehicle, it was out of their jurisdiction, or the evidence was gone. To combat this problem, the Supreme Court ruled in Carroll v. United States to include an automobile exception to the exclusionary rule that allowed traffic officers to conduct warrantless vehicle searches… if certain conditions were met. So, when can an officer search your vehicle without your consent?
When Can a Traffic Officer Search Your Vehicle Without Your Consent?
Safe Driving Tips for the Back-to-School Season
(August 25, 2022) San Antonio is officially back to school this week. Back to school means busy parents are rushing to drop off their kids before work, and school buses are adding to the already congested construction traffic areas. It’s important during this time that drivers brush up on their back-to-school safe driving techniques. In this article, we’ll look at crash statistics and cover tips for safe driving practices during the school season, as well as what to do if your child has been injured in a school transportation accident.
Did you know?
State Supreme Court Determines Jurisdiction Issue in Texas Electrocution Case
The Supreme Court of Texas recently delivered an opinion addressing whether the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) has jurisdiction over a negligence case involving a good Samaritan. Here, the deceased was electrocuted while trying to help victims of a crash that caused a power line to fall. The good Samaritan’s estate and family filed a negligence lawsuit against the power line company, arguing that they were negligent in their duty to design, construct, operate, and maintain its electricity system. They asserted that the company failed to ensure that they would de-energize portions of the distribution lines when they experience faults.
The accident occurred when one vehicle ran a red light and hit a wooden utility pole maintained by the company. The man was driving past the scene when he stopped to help the accident victims. As he was walking, the man came into contact with electricity radiating through the ground. The shock knocked him to the ground and his clothes caught on fire; tragically, he passed away three weeks later from his injuries.
In response, the power company filed a plea arguing that Texas’ PUC maintains jurisdiction over the case. In support of their claim, the power company argued that PUC has exclusive jurisdiction over an electric company’s utility rates, operations, and services, extends to adjudicating whether a company complied with the law. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs’ complaints bring up fundamental questions about how a power company maintains its distribution systems. The plaintiffs argued that the case falls under the Texas Estates Code, and the probate court has jurisdiction to adjudicate the matter.
Court Addresses Recreational Use Statute and Governmental Immunity in Texas Bike Accident Case
The Supreme Court of Texas recently released an opinion addressing the state’s recreational use statute (RUS) and governmental immunity laws after a plaintiff sued the University of Texas at Austin for negligence. The plaintiff filed a personal injury claim against the University after an employee struck her with a University-owned car while she was riding her bike. The woman suffered various injuries, including bruises, fractures, and facial cuts. The employee admitted that his view was partially blocked, and he failed to see the biker. However, the school argued that it was not liable based on the RUS and Tort Claims Act (TCA).
Historically, citizens could not sue governmental entities for any injuries they suffered because of the government or their agent’s negligence. However, the TCA partially waives Texas’s sovereign immunity in specific cases. The TCA allows individuals to sue governmental agencies if, the government employee was acting within the scope of their employment, the claim was filed within the statute of limitations, and the at-fault party was not acting in response to an emergency.
The RUS provides that landowners who make their property available for recreational use owe only a limited duty of care to those who use their land. Property owners in these cases must only refrain from acting grossly negligently or intentionally injuring people who use their land for recreational use. Texas broadly defines “recreational use,” as any activity that is related to “enjoying the outdoors.” This includes activities such as, camping, biking, water activities, hunting, fishing, using a swing set, and golfing. Landowners can only assert this defense if they do not charge a fee or if they meet specific monetary guidelines. If a landowner charges a fee, they cannot benefit from the RUS unless the total payments they collected the previous year were less than 20 times the property tax. In instances where the RUS intersects with the TCA, plaintiffs must establish that the governmental entity was grossly negligent, acted maliciously, or in bad faith.
Texas Supreme Court Holds Notice Requirement Was Met in Governmental Tort Lawsuit
Recently, the Supreme Court of Texas issued an opinion stemming from a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the City of Killeen, Texas (the “City”). According to the court’s opinion, the victims died after striking an un-barricaded dirt mound on an unlit road in the City. The victims’ relatives filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the dirt mound was a “special defect” on the City’s property.
Generally, under the theory of sovereign immunity, governments cannot be sued by their citizens based on a tort claim. However, the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) allows citizens to sue the government in specific situations. The TTCA enables personal injury lawsuits based on two grounds. First, when a citizen suffers property damage, personal injury, or death from a Texas employee’s use or operation of a motor vehicle during their scope of employment. And second, if personal injury or death occurs because of a condition or use of personal or real government property.
To succeed on the second ground, the TTCA breaks down the claim into two additional classes: special and premise defects. Special defects, such as the one that was alleged in the above case, are conditions created by the government. These are conditions such as excavations and construction sites. Premises defect lawsuits often mirror typical personal injury lawsuits such as slip and fall cases. Unlike special defect lawsuits, premises liability lawsuit requires the defendant to have actual knowledge of the defect.
Texas Supreme Court Determines Off-Duty Officer Was Immune from Liability in Recent Wrongful Death Lawsuit
In May 2019, the state’s high court issued a written opinion in a Texas wrongful death case discussing whether an off-duty officer could be held individually liable after he shot and killed a suspect while attempting an arrest outside the officer’s jurisdiction. Under the state’s election-of-remedies provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act, the court determined that the officer could not be held liable in his individual capacity.
Under the election-of-remedies provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act, government employees cannot be held individually liable for injuries they cause to others under certain circumstances. Specifically, an injured victim cannot hold a government employee personally liable when: 1.) the employee’s actions were conducted within the scope of their employment, and 2.) the case could have been brought against the government.
According to the court’s recitation of the facts, the plaintiffs’ son was shot and killed by an off-duty officer (the defendant) during an attempted arrest that occurred outside the defendant’s jurisdiction. The plaintiffs filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the officer in his individual capacity.
Texas Supreme Court Discusses Notice Requirement in Personal Injury Lawsuits Filed Against the Government
The state’s high court recently ruled in a Texas personal injury case involving the notice requirements in lawsuits against government entities. According to the court’s opinion, two individuals were riding on a motorcycle when they hit a large mound of dirt on an unlit asphalt road in Killeen, Texas. While both driver and passenger initially survived the crash, they ultimately died as a result of their injuries. The accident victims’ relatives sued the city, claiming that the mound of dirt was a “special defect” for which the city was responsible. The city argued that the plaintiffs failed to give formal notice of the claim, as required under the Texas Tort Claims Act. In response, the plaintiffs argued that the city already had actual notice of the claim and therefore the plaintiffs should be excused from providing additional notice.
Under section 101.101(a) of the Texas Tort Claims Act, a claimant must provide a government entity with notice of a claim against it within six months of the “incident giving rise to the claim.” The notice must describe the incident, the time and place where the incident occurred, and the damage or injury that resulted. However, under section 101.101(c), a claimant does not need to provide notice if the governmental entity has “actual notice” that the claimant was injured, the claimant’s property was damaged, or that a death has occurred.
In a 2004 Texas Supreme Court case, the court held in order to have actual notice, the government must be subjectively aware of its alleged fault in the resulting death, injury, or property damage. The plaintiffs argued that the case should be overturned because this requirement was not part of the statute. However, the court declined to overturn its previous decision, and held that in this case, the city had actual notice.
Texas Supreme Court Dismisses Claim after Pregnant Woman Falls in Dam
The Texas Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in a Texas personal injury case involving the death of a 19-year-old pregnant woman who fell into a dam near Fort Worth. According to the court’s opinion, the woman tried to walk across the dam when she slipped and fell into the river and drowned. She was five months pregnant at the time. The woman’s parents sued the local water district, which built and maintained the dam, alleging that it was at fault for their daughter’s death. The water district, which is considered a governmental entity, claimed that it was immune from suit for that reason. The plaintiffs claimed that the district was not immune from suit because the claim fell under a specified waiver of immunity.
Governmental immunity generally protects political subdivisions of the state, including cities and counties. However, there are exceptions to the general rule of immunity. For example, the state is not immune for claims involving “use of publicly owned automobiles, premises defects, and injuries arising out of conditions or use of property.” Under section 101.056 of the Texas Tort Claims Act, there is an exception to waivers of immunity if the claim is based on:
(1) the failure of a governmental unit to perform an act that the unit is not required by law to perform; or
Texas Court Rejects City’s Claim of Immunity in Recent Car Accident Case
Late last month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Texas car accident case requiring the court to determine if the plaintiff’s case against the defendant city should proceed toward trial over the city’s motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the city claimed it was entitled to government immunity because it did not have notice of the fallen stop sign that allegedly caused the accident in which the plaintiff was injured. Ultimately, the court rejected the city’s argument and denied its motion because there were disputed facts regarding the applicability of immunity in the case.
The Facts of the Case
The plaintiff was injured when she was side-swiped while driving through an intersection in Houston. The plaintiff was traveling northbound at the time of the accident. At this specific intersection, traffic traveling in the east-west direction did not have a stop sign. There was a stop sign for both northbound and southbound traffic, which is where the dispute between the parties arose.
After the accident, the plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the city, claiming it was liable for her injuries because the stop sign for northbound traffic had been knocked over and was lying on the ground after the accident. The city claimed that the sign was not knocked down, and was visible at the time of the accident.