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Texas City Sued Due to Police Officer Use of Patrol Car

In City of Socorro v. Hernandez, a Texas appellate court considered a case in which the plaintiffs were involved in a car crash. Their car was rendered inoperable, and the electrical system died in the street. The hazard lights weren’t working. The police responded. The officer didn’t park his car behind the stalled car but instead parked on a side street, activating his overhead flashing lights. The officer ordered the two to push the stalled vehicle out of the road. A woman driving towards the accident was distracted by the police car’s lights and crashed into the police officer and the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs sued on the grounds that their injuries and damages were proximately caused by the city’s negligence in failing to use warning lights in a way that would have warned other motorists about the dangerous condition in the road, placing the car in a side street and thereby distracting motorists from the dangerous condition, failing to take reasonable steps to make the road safe, and directing the plaintiff to push the car out of the road in spite of its inoperable condition.

The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which was denied by the trial court. The City appealed the denial. The court reviewed whether the allegations established that the city’s use of the police car proximately caused the injuries, whether the injuries were proximately caused by the use of the disabled car, and whether the dangerous condition created by the disabled car was a special defect.

In Texas, the doctrine of sovereign immunity prevents the state and certain other governmental entities from being sued unless they consent to the suit. The Texas Tort Claims Act includes a limited waiver that allows a governmental entity to be liable for property damage, personal injury, or death proximately caused by a wrongful or negligent act by an employee if it arose from the operation of a motor-driven vehicle, the employee would be personally liable according to Texas law, and any personal injury or death caused by the use of tangible personal or real property would make the governmental entity liable under Texas law, if it were a private person.

The appellate court first considered whether the officer had “used” the patrol car. The court agreed with the city that the allegation that the officer failed to put his car behind the disabled vehicle basically amounted to non-use. Accordingly, it did not fall within the waiver of governmental immunity.

However, the plaintiffs also alleged that the officer negligently used the patrol car by pulling onto a side road and activating his flashing lights, which distracted drivers. The appellate court concluded that the officer used the patrol car by activating the overhead flashing lights. Therefore, the City’s first issue was overruled.

The second issue was whether the officer had been negligent in requiring the plaintiff to move the disabled vehicle. The court found that the plaintiffs had sufficiently pleaded this as a use or operation of a motor-driven vehicle.

Generally, the Texas Tort Claims Act limits a governmental entity’s liability in premises liability claims by classifying someone who uses the government’s real property as a licensee, to whom fewer duties are owed, rather than as an invitee. However, this doesn’t apply when a dangerous condition is a “special defect.” There were no cases holding that a disabled or stopped car on the road is a special defect. The court concluded that as a matter of law, the disabled vehicle wasn’t a special defect within the meaning of the Tort Claims Act. However, there were two bases upon which the plaintiffs could continue their lawsuit against the city.

If you’re hurt due to the negligence of a governmental employee, you will need an attorney who understands the Texas Tort Claims Act. 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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