Jim Wells County Commissioner Rene Chapa ordered a work crew to cut down dozens of trees along County Road 352. The crew entered the property of the Perez Ranch to execute their orders and cut down trees located entirely on ranch property, as well as on the public right-of-way. No one from the county notified the ranch to find out which of the trees were on private property nor did the Chapa obtain consent from the ranch to enter the property. The crew used motor-driven equipment, including chainsaws, hydraulic grapplers, trucks, and trailers for the job.
These are the facts of Renee Kirchoff Chapa, in her official capacity as County Commissioner of Jim Wells County, Texas, and Jim Wells County, Texas v. Wyatt Ranches of Texas, LLC (No. 04-22-61861-CV; delivered May 10, 2023). Wyatt brought suit against Chapa and the county for trespass to real property, negligence, and gross negligence and alleged claims under the Texas Tort Claims Act. It also sued the county for inverse condemnation. Defendants filed a joint plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. Defendants filed an accelerated appeal.
In an opinion by Justice Valenzuela, the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the plea to the jurisdiction as to the negligence claim but reversed and rendered judgment for defendants on the trespass claim and for the county on the inverse condemnation claim. Defendants argued that the TTCA did not waive immunity from Wyatt’s tort claims because the damage to property did not “arise from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment” as required by § 101.021(1), CPRC. They also contended that Wyatt’s trespass claim was an intentional tort that came within the TTCA’s intentional-tort exclusion found in § 101.057. As to the negligence claim, the court construed the statute’s “arises from” language in accordance with SCOTX authority, which requires a “nexus between the operation or use of the motor-driven vehicle or equipment and a plaintiff’s injuries” (citations omitted). A showing of nexus “requires more than mere involvement of property,” and “the equipment’s use must have actually caused the injury,” as opposed to merely “furnish[ing] the condition that makes the injury possible” (citations omitted). The test for causation is proximate cause, which requires a finding of cause in fact and foreseeability (citations omitted).
Defendants argued that the “gravamen” of Wyatt’s claim involved the county’s failure to notify and its “erroneous judgment concerning the boundary between the county right-of-way and private property.” Under this theory, the use of motor-driven equipment to cut down and haul away the trees was merely incidental to the claim, and Wyatt’s alleged injury did not “arise from” its use. The court disagreed, finding that Wyatt’s pleadings created a fact question as to whether Chapa’s orders caused damage to the value of ranch property. It likewise determined that the damage to Wyatt’s property was a foreseeable result of Chapa’s orders. “A reasonable person in Chapa’s position,” the court concluded, “could have foreseen that directing trees to be cut down, without confirming the location of the trees, might lead to the destruction of trees on private property much like the destruction that ultimately occurred here.” Consequently, the trial court’s denial of defendants’ plea to the jurisdiction was not erroneous.
However, things did not go as well for Wyatt on its trespass and inverse condemnation theories. Under § 101.057, CRPC, governmental immunity is not waived for intentional torts. As trespass is an intentional tort, the court determined that the trial court erred in denying defendants’ plea to the jurisdiction. At the same time, however, the court noted that Wyatt’s negligence claim against the governmental defendants “may arise out of the same facts that would also give rise to an intentional-tort claim absent the governmental unit’s sovereign immunity” (citation omission). While the “operative facts” supporting the two claims may be the same, the legal theories are not, and the negligence claim may proceed under the TTCA.
Finally, respecting the inverse condemnation claim, the court found that, although Wyatt could show that the first two elements of the claim—an intentional act by a governmental entity that resulted in taking or damaging the property—it could not show that the taking was “for or applied to public use.” “Even if Chapa intentionally directed employees under her control to destroy trees on Wyatt Ranches’ property, not every ‘intentional act can give rise to liability for an intentional taking,” the court observed. “Based on the allegations in Wyatt Ranches’ petition, Chapa’s actions amounted, at most to negligence; however ‘[m]ere negligence is not the lawful exercise of governmental authority, and therefore, does not constitute a compensable taking;” (citation omitted). Wyatt “failed to allege the County acted with specific intent to take its property for public use,” and the trial court erred when it denied the county’s please to the jurisdiction.
In addition to putting governmental entities that cut down trees on private property on notice that they had better be sure of what they’re doing, this opinion has an interesting take on the language of § 101.021(1)(A). We’re not entirely sure that just because a county employee uses a chainsaw to cut down some trees that the damage “arises from the operation or use of … motor-driven equipment.” It looks like the real problem here was that nobody bothered to talk to the landowner first, and that’s where damage was done. In any event, the opinion’s discussion of that provision is well worth taking a look at.