Texas Supreme Court Finds that Intermediate Court Applied Wrong Standard in Suit Arising from Trooper’s Pursuit of Suspect – Texas Department of Public Safety v. Bonilla

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At common law, a citizen had no legal right to sue the government for injuries sustained due to the alleged negligence of a governmental employer. This ideology was based on the old English legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, which basically held that “the king could do no wrong.”

Nowadays, however, most states and local governments allow suits to be filed against them under certain conditions. In Texas, the governing statute is the Texas Tort Claims Act. Despite the passage of statutes granting sovereign immunity, however, cases against the government remain difficult to prove in many instances. Just as with traditional defendants (such as insurance companies), the government often fights hard to avoid liability.

Facts of the Case

In the recent case of Texas Department of Public Safety v. Bonilla, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident that happened when a state trooper ran a red light while allegedly in pursuit of a reckless driver. The defendant, the Texas Department of Public Safety, claimed that it was immune from suit because of the trooper’s official immunity. It also claimed that the emergency response exception to the Act was applicable.

The trial court denied the department’s motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeals affirmed, holding that the department had failed to establish the good-faith element of its official immunity defense. In so holding, the court of appeals found that the department’s evidence did not address whether the trooper considered an alterative course of action. Accordingly, the court of appeals found that the plaintiff had raised a factual issue such that summary judgment was not warranted.

The Decision of the Texas Supreme Court

The court first noted that it had jurisdiction over the matter because the court of appeals’ decision conflicted with the court’s precedent with regard to the good-faith standard that applied to the department’s official immunity. Since the intermediate court had applied a standard that was materially different from that which the supreme court would have applied, the court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

According to the court, the good-faith standard is analogous to an abuse-of-discretion standard. It protects all but those who are plainly incompetent or knowingly violate the law. In so holding, the court stressed that the standard is not equivalent to a general negligence test. The appropriate focus is what a reasonable officer “could have believed,” and evidence that a reasonable law enforcement officer could have resolved the situation differently will not overcome competent evidence of good faith.

The court went on to find that the mere fact that the trooper in the current case did not expressly identify alternatives to the action that he ultimately chose did not render the department’s evidence deficient. The court of appeals was thus directed to reconsider the case based upon the correct standard.

For Help with Your Motor Vehicle Accident Case

If you or someone close to you is suffering because of a car accident that you believe resulted from the negligence of another person, business, or governmental entity, you need to talk to a lawyer about your rights. For a free consultation with experienced Texas car accident attorney Earl Drott, call us at (903) 531-9300. We help people throughout east Texas, including in Tyler and the surrounding area.

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