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Motorcyclist Unable to Recover from City in Texas

In Northcutt v. City of Hearne, the appellate court considered governmental immunity in the context of a motorcycle accident resulting in the death of a motorcyclist. The motorcyclist was traveling northbound on Highway 79. A police officer had hidden on a driveway with his lights off to set up a speed trap. As the motorcyclist approached, the officer pulled his car out of the driveway to pursue a different vehicle. The motorcyclist was forced to swerve to avoid contact.

The motorcycle flipped, and he was thrown onto the highway. The defendant failed to swerve and hit him, resulting in the motorcyclist’s death. The decedent’s personal representative sued the City for negligence, seeking wrongful death and survival damages. She alleged that the city had waived its governmental immunity under the Tort Claims Act.

The City denied the allegations and put up a defense based on governmental immunity. It also filed a plea to the jurisdiction, claiming there were insufficient facts to support the claim it had waived its immunity. The trial court granted the plea. The plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court explained that a governmental unit must meet the summary judgment standard of proof when it is arguing there is no jurisdiction in a plea to the jurisdiction. If the Legislature hasn’t specifically waived a governmental unit’s immunity from suit, the state is immune even when its liability is undisputed. Municipalities have a heavy presumption of immunity.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court had erred in granting the plea because there was a factual issue as to whether the city was liable for negligently operating the motor vehicle. The plaintiff argued that the record showed the city waived its immunity under section 101.021 of the Tort Claims Act. Under the Act, a governmental unit may be liable for a personal injury that arises from the operation of a motor vehicle. There must be a causal nexus between the injury and the governmental employee’s use of the motor vehicle.

The appellate court explained that proximate cause includes two parts:  foreseeability and cause in fact. Foreseeability exists when a reasonable person would have anticipated the dangerousness of his negligent actions. An event can be the actual cause if you can prove the act was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury and that without that event there would have been no harm.

The plaintiff argued that the investigation report showed the officer’s action caused the accident. The trial court admitted the report, stating it would disregard the hearsay in the report. However, the plaintiff didn’t argue that there was an exception to the hearsay rule. Therefore the trooper’s opinion in the report about how the accident happened was not part of the record. However, in his affidavit, the officer who had pulled onto the road, causing the motorcyclist to swerve, had stated what happened without making any claims that showed he was negligent.

The appellate court found that too many inferences had to be read into the affidavit to find out whether the officer was negligent or had actually caused the injury. Specifically, the officer didn’t observe any other cars close to him swerve to avoid his car, and the motorcyclist was 100 feet behind him. The plaintiff bore the burden of providing evidence to show a causal connection between the death and his actions. The judgment was affirmed.

If you are injured or a loved one is killed in a motorcycle accident, the experienced San Antonio 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.

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