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Articles Posted in Government Liability

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city-road-landscape-landmark-158854-200x300The Supreme Court of Texas recently issued an opinion stemming from the death of a student who was shot by a University peace officer. The student’s parents filed a lawsuit against the University and the peace officer. In response, the University argued that governmental immunity protects it from being sued for injuries related to law-enforcement activities.

Sovereign immunity, otherwise known as governmental immunity, protects government officials and entities from certain civil lawsuits. However, Texas waives this immunity in specific situations. That said, plaintiffs still frequently face difficulties recovering in these cases. Texas courts have not extended this immunity to private entities, even if they perform some governmental duties. In some cases, institutions will purport to possess these protections, even though they are private institutions.

In evaluating whether the law provides governmental immunity to an institution, courts will examine whether the party acted as an arm of the state government, and if its conduct fits within the purpose of the doctrine. Generally, private universities do not act as an arm of the state. Even if a university performs law enforcement activities that may protect the public, the doctrine does not extend to these institutions. Although Texas Education Code allows private institutions to hire peace officers, the individual officer’s immunity does not extend to the private institution.

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https://www.texasinjurylawyersblog.com/files/2020/05/Screen-Shot-2020-05-04-at-9.59.08-AM.pngRecently, the Supreme Court of Texas issued a per curiam opinion in an appeal involving the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA). The lawsuit originates from an automobile accident that an injury victim filed against a Texas governmental entity. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Jefferson County, Texas, alleging that he suffered serious injuries when a police officer, driving a government-issued vehicle, crashed into him. The court instructed the plaintiff’s representative to direct his claims to a third-party risk management entity. Following this instruction, the representative notified the county of the negligence claim, provided identifying information and descriptions of the accident, and all required copies of statements and accident reports, ultimately expressing a desire to resolve the claim amicably.

In response, the risk management company denied the claim stating that it did not believe that the county was negligent. The county’s answer included all of the TTCA’s limitations but sought dismissal on non-TTCA grounds. The representative countered that he complied with the TTCA’s notice requirement, through his communications with the county’s risk assessment company.

Under the TTCA, claimants must provide “notice of the claim” to the governmental agency that they are pursuing a claim against. Section 101.101 of the TTCA requires that notice includes specific information unless the governmental agency has actual notice of the incident. The notice requirement mandates that the claimant provide information regarding the damage or injury, the time and location of the incident, and details of the incident itself. In contrast, actual notice means that the governmental entity was aware that they may hold some responsibility for damages, injury, or death.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Texas issued a written opinion in a case involving a fatal Texas pedestrian accident, requiring the court to discuss the damages cap provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA). Specifically, the court had to determine if the damages cap provision applies individually or cumulatively in cases involving several independent contractors. Ultimately, the court concluded that, when a contractor is performing an essential government function, the damages cap applies cumulatively to all defendants.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was the surviving daughter of a woman who was struck and killed by a public bus in Fort Worth. The bus was driven by a man who was employed by a company that was an independent contractor that provided drivers for Fort Worth’s public transportation system.

The plaintiff brought a Texas personal injury claim against several parties, including the driver, the driver’s employer, and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (FWTA). The FWTA is a regional transportation authority that provides for all of the public transportation needs of the city. The plaintiff claimed that each of the organizational defendants was vicariously liable for the driver’s negligence.

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Injury claims against Texas government entities can be complicated, since many agencies are protected by governmental immunity, precluding recovery in some situations. However, there are certain exceptions that can allow plaintiffs to successfully file a claim against a government entity.In a recent case before the Texas Supreme Court, a plaintiff brought a Texas personal injury claim against Harris County after she was shot by an off-duty officer in a road rage incident. The County argued that it was protected by governmental immunity, but the plaintiff argued that the claim fell under an exception because the officer was using a personal firearm. She alleged that the County’s use of tangible personal property caused her injuries. She argued the County’s use of tangible personal property was the County’s decision to hire the officer and to allow him to possess the gun as a firearm.

Governmental Immunity

Under Texas state law, governmental immunity protects political subdivisions of the state from legal liability. This includes counties, cities, and school districts. However, the Texas Tort Claims Act waives immunity for certain claims that would normally fall under the general grant of governmental immunity.

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