In two cases concerning waiver of governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act, the Texas Supreme Court has held that the TTCA does not waive the liability of a city for injuries arising from the use of a law enforcement vehicle. The decision reverses the San Antonio Court of Appeals, which itself reversed trial court orders granting the city’s plea to the jurisdiction.
The fact patterns of the two cases are somewhat different, but both involve traffic accidents that occurred in close proximity to a law enforcement vehicle. In the first case, City of San Antonio v. Riojas (No. 20-0293), a police officer, observing a sudden traffic slowdown on I-37 turned on his emergency lights to warn traffic behind him. Three lanes over in the left-most lane, a driver braked in response to the slowdown, causing the motorcycle driver behind her to swerve. The driver, Riojas, fell as his motorcycle slid into the car. Riojas sued the city and the officer alleging that the officer was negligent in turning on his emergency lights and that the officer’s negligence fell within §102.021(1), TTCA, which makes a governmental unit liable for personal injury, proximately caused by an employee’s negligence, that arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle, as long as the employee would be personally liable under Texas law. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction on two grounds: Riojas’s injuries were caused by another driver, not the officer, and the officer had official immunity and could not be personally liable to Riojas. The trial court granted the plea, but the court of appeals reversed.
In an opinion by Chief Justice Hecht, SCOTC reversed on the basis that the court of appeals applied the wrong test. In holding that the city failed to prove that the officer was entitled to official immunity, the court applied the “need-risk” balancing analysis that SCOTX “has expressly refused to apply outside the context of a high-speed chase or other emergency law-enforcement response that carries an inherent risk of harm to the public” (citations omitted). In cases involving “routine traffic management,” like this one, the city only needs to show that the officer acted in “good faith—that is, ‘that a reasonably prudent officer, under the same or similar circumstances, could have believed that his conduct was justified based on the information he possessed when the conduct occurred.’” If the city makes that showing, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to “offer evidence that no reasonable officer in [the defendant’s] position could have believed that the facts were such that they justified his conduct.” Put another way, if “officers of reasonable competence could disagree on the issue,” the court will find that the officer has established good faith as a matter of law. SCOTX concluded that the officer in this case demonstrated good faith as a matter of law. The plaintiff failed to offer any evidence tending to show that no reasonable officer could have believed that turning on his warning lights was justified under the circumstances.
The second case, City of San Antonio v. Maspero (No. 19-114), involved injuries to innocent bystanders during a police chase. The plaintiffs brought suit against the city under the Tort Claims Act waiver of governmental immunity when an injury “arises from the operation or use of a motor vehicle.” See § 101.021, CPRC. The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction alleging that the plaintiff’s injuries were too attenuated from the officer’s action and, alternatively, that the emergency exception in § 101.055(2) of the Act applies because the officer’s actions were not reckless and did not violate applicable law or ordinances. The trial court granted the city’s plea to the jurisdiction and dismissed the action. The court of appeals reversed. In a lengthy opinion by Justice Lehrmann, SCOTX reversed the court of appeals, holding that the emergency exception applies. The Court further further reversed the court of appeals’ decision that an independent basis for waiver of sovereign immunity exists on the grounds of negligent implementation of policy.
The facts of this case are complex and tragic, and we will not recite them at length here. The officer pursued a suspect in a marijuana distribution operation who fled a traffic stop. The pursuit sometimes reached high speed, but the accident occurred at normal on a two-way IH-35 access road when the officer in her vehicle approached the suspect’s vehicle coming toward her. When the suspect passed her, the officer turned her vehicle around. At that point, the suspect appears to have sped up to pass a vehicle, swerved into the oncoming traffic lane, and struck the Maspero’s vehicle. The Masperos were severely injured and their two young children were killed.
The Masperos alleged that the officer’s conduct was reckless, violated the Texas Transportation Code’s requirement that drivers of emergency vehicles activate audible or visual signals, and caused the collision. They further alleged that the officer violated police department procedures governing vehicular pursuit, which they argued was a “law or ordinance” within the meaning of the Tort Claims Act emergency exception. SCOTX rejected these arguments. First, the Transportation Code provision cited by the plaintiffs did not apply because the officer was not engaged in any conduct that otherwise violated the code, such as exceeding the maximum speed limit or running through red lights. Her failure to use her siren did not transgress the emergency exception because there was no causal nexus between the failure and the accident, and use of the siren could not have prevented the accident. Finally, her actions were not reckless. She had specific instructions to stop the suspect, who she had reason to believe was engaged in drug trafficking. Though at times during the pursuit she was speeding, there was no evidence speeding caused the accident, and in fact she had slowed by the time the accident occurred. Finally, she showed intent to minimize potential harm by slowing down at intersections. Her actions did not rise to the level of “reckless disregard” for the increased danger of her actions as required by the emergency exception. With respect to the negligent implementation of policy claim, SCOTX ruled that no such independent basis for waiver of sovereign immunity exists.
If you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this post, you might wonder why we wanted to make you aware of these cases. First, we think it is important to report on cases that demonstrate how difficult it can be for SCOTX to make the right call in the face of terrible facts, as in the case of the Masperos. We often forget that the justices feel the weight of their decisions every day, so we should always appreciate and honor their integrity and intellectual honesty in reaching the legally correct result. Second, though these cases involved traffic accidents that injured innocent bystanders, not high-speed chases or use of deadly force, we believe that SCOTX’s reasoning about the importance of clear boundaries between conduct protected by sovereign immunity and conduct that may waive immunity reinforces the critical protections sovereign and governmental immunity provide to the taxpaying public. It’s easy to forget that every time a governmental entity pays out a settlement or judgment, it has to take taxpayer money away from essential services to do it. Finally, cases like these demonstrate how seriously SCOTX takes the principle of separation of powers. This consistency alone promotes the kind of stable and predictable business and regulatory environment necessary for the economy to thrive. So it’s not only the big business cases that matter. They all matter.