Texas Court Dismisses Negligence Case Against County, Holding that Contractor’s Knowledge that “Bridge Out” Sign Was Down Did Not Place County on Notice of Defect – Brazoria County v. Eldridge

Stock photo of a "Bridge Closed" sign in front of the entrance to a bridge. The picture represents the frustration a person may feel about opportunities that seem closed off to them, or obstacles placed in their paths due to racism, discrimination, handicap, or prejudice. The actual bridge is located on Harvard Road in Harvard, Delaware County, New York and spans the East Branch of the Delaware River. It is a through truss bridge that was built in 1901, rehabilitated in 1964, and closed to all vehicular traffic in 2006.

For a long time, governmental entities were protected from negligence lawsuits based upon the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Under this doctrine, states, counties, and cities were immune from suit based on a tradition of English common law referred to as “rex non potest peccare,” which meant “the king can do no wrong.”

Nowadays, however, most governmental entities are subject to suit, at least in certain circumstances. Typically, such suits are more difficult to prove than negligence cases against individuals or even businesses, and damages are often limited to a certain amount set by statute. Still, some recovery is better than no recovery, especially for those who are very seriously injured or who have lost a loved one in an accident.

The Facts of the Case

In the case of Brazoria County v. Eldridge, the plaintiffs were two men who were injured in a car accident. They sued the defendant county, alleging negligence. Specifically, the plaintiffs averred that the county had failed to provide an adequate warning of the hazardous condition of a road in which a bridge had been removed and that, as a result, they had driven into a drainage ditch. The defendant county filed a plea to the trial court’s jurisdiction over the case, asking that the case be dismissed. The trial court refused, and the county appealed.

Ruling of the Court of Appeals

Unfortunately for the injured men, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision and dismissed their case against the county. The court first noted that, in a previous appeal, it had held that it was not necessary for the men to show that their claims against the county were derived from an act or omission of a county employee. Accordingly, that appeal had resulted in a reversal of the trial court’s order to the effect that the county was immune from suit based on the pleadings.

On remand, the county filed a second plea to the jurisdiction, this time arguing that it had waived governmental immunity only to the extent that a similarly situated private party would have been liable and that it owed no legal duty to the men because it was not the actual owner or possessor of the property where the accident happened. (Instead, the county averred that the property was controlled by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), a separate governmental entity, at the time in question.)

In analyzing the issues, the court determined that the county did own the bridge but found that the county had no reason to believe that either TxDOT or the contractor hired by it would not continue to maintain the construction site in the same manner as they had before a storm knocked down the sign that would have warned the men that the bridge was out. Although there was testimony that the contractor was aware that the sign was down, there was no proof that the county knew of this fact.

Since the county lacked actual knowledge that the sign was down and had no duty to inspect the site under the circumstances, it could not be held liable under the Texas Tort Claims Act.

To Talk to a Knowledgeable East Texas Car Accident Lawyer

If you have been hurt in an automobile collision and need reliable legal advice, contact the law firm of Earl Drott today. We are conveniently located in Tyler, from which we serve all of east Texas. You can set up a free, confidential appointment with an experienced Texas car accident attorney by simply calling (903) 531-9300. We accept most cases on a contingency fee basis, so no money is required to get your case started.

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