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Injuries Sustained Due to Property of a Texas University

In The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Munoz, the plaintiff was hurt by heavy equipment on which he worked near property owned by the university. Employed by Universal Controls, Inc. (UCI), he was an electrician. UCI subcontracted to retrofit an air-handling unit (a type of air conditioner in offices). UCI needed to install new computer panels and sensors. UCI had to run wiring for the system, including making decisions about where the wire would be run. Its employees were responsible to do the work. The university didn’t supply materials, but it owned the complex, including the towers to which air conditioning would be supplied.

The second tower was a 14-story building. The unit at issue was a pulley-driven motor system. Although it was supposed to have a safety cover, it was missing. The plaintiff started working on the unit in October and worked there for seven or eight days without a problem. He noticed the missing safety cover before the date of his injury, October 9.

On that day, he saw that UCI employees were there, but no university employees were there. He noticed that another employee had left wire in the walkway near an uncovered spinning wheel and realized it was dangerous. However, he simply walked around the wire instead of tying it on multiple occasions. One time, his leg got caught in the wire, which was entangled in the spinning wheel, and he was jerked as the wire pulled by the spinning wheel lifted him and twisted his knee. His knee and back were hurt, and he had to have two surgeries, both of which were unsuccessful.

The university made a motion for a directed verdict before the case went to trial. It argued that the air conditioning was a building appurtenance, not tangible personal property. It argued that all the plaintiff could sue for was premises defects, but his prior knowledge of the danger barred that claim. The trial court denied the motion.

On appeal, the university challenged the denial of its plea to the jurisdiction. The issue in the case was whether a dangerous property condition or the use of personal property caused the injury. The answer to that question would determine whether the university had sovereign immunity from being sued.

The appellate court determined that sovereign immunity wasn’t waived for a dangerous premises claim because the plaintiff admitted he knew that it was dangerous. The appellate court explained that the act of requiring that the equipment be running while the plaintiff worked near it established that it was a use of tangible personal property sufficient to establish that the trial court had jurisdiction.

A jury was empaneled for a trial based on negligence. The jury determined that the university was 51% negligent in causing the plaintiff’s injuries and awarded him nearly $2.5 million in damages. These were reduced by the court to $250,000 based on Texas Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §101.023.

The university appealed, again arguing for its sovereign immunity. It argued that the evidence wasn’t sufficient to support the verdict because there wasn’t any evidence that it negligently used tangible personal property in order to hurt the plaintiff, that the trial court shouldn’t have admitted medical billing records, and the trial court had made a mistake in admitting foundation-less expert testimony about future medical costs.

The appellate court explained that it agreed the evidence showed the air-handling unit wasn’t personal property. It was fixed to the building, had no safety cover, and had to be cut apart in order to be moved. The court ruled that sovereign immunity wasn’t waived because the plaintiff previously knew of the dangerous condition, which precluded him from suing for premises liability. The trial court’s judgment was reversed.

If you are injured on the job due to negligence by someone other than your employer, you should consult an experienced Texas attorney with experience in work injury cases as well as workers’ compensation to seek the best possible outcome. Consult the experienced San Antonio attorneys at Carabin Shaw for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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