Texas Court Reverses Judgment in Favor of Deceased Motorcyclist’s Family in Case Alleging Negligence Against TxDOT

Generally speaking, when someone is hurt due to the negligence of another party, the injured person has a right to pursue compensation for lost wages, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and other damages via a negligence lawsuit. (If the accident victim is killed, his or her family may seek compensation through a wrongful death claim.)

When the party that allegedly caused an injury or death through its negligence was a governmental entity, however, it can be much more difficult for the injured person (or deceased person’s family) to receive fair compensation. This is because special laws protect the government from suit or limit its liability.

These laws are based on a holdover from the English common law. Under the sovereign immunity doctrine, “the king can do no wrong.” Although neither the United States nor the State of Texas has ever been under the authority of a king (at least after the signing of the Declaration of Independence), many of the provisions of sovereign immunity still hold true.

Facts of the Case

In a recently decided appellate case, the plaintiffs were the family members of a man who died in a fatal motorcycle accident on April 9, 2009. According to the plaintiffs, the crash happened when their decedent struck an exit sign that was owned by the defendant, the Texas Department of Transportation. The sign had last been inspected by the defendant on March 30, 2009, at which time the defendant’s employees had noticed that the sign was not level and had replaced the fuse plates, nuts, and bolts holding the sign in place, by hand, using a wrench.

Several 9-1-1 callers had reported problems with the sign around the time of the accident, and one had even said that the sign “was going to kill somebody if they ran into it.” The plaintiff’s decedent apparently struck the sign after it twisted in such a way as to swing out into the exit ramp on which he was traveling.

The case proceeded to trial against the defendant and the maker of the bolts used on the sign. The jury found in the sign maker’s favor on the product liability claim but found that the defendant was negligent. The trial court reduced the jury’s damages award to $250,000, the statutory maximum for a claim against a governmental entity pursuant to Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Annotated § 101.023(a).

Decision of the Texas Appellate Court

The Court of Appeals of Texas reversed the trial court’s judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor. The court first noted that the defendant was a governmental entity protected by sovereign immunity except in cases in which such immunity had been waived. Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, a party injured by the government’s negligence can bring suit in certain, narrowly defined circumstances.

The court further noted that there are two components to sovereign immunity:  immunity from suit and immunity from liability (an affirmative defense). Both immunities are waived by the Act in cases involving a premises defect, but, in “special defect” cases, the government only owes the claimant the duty that would be owed to an invitee, namely, the duty to use ordinary care to reduce or eliminate an unreasonable risk of harm based on conditions of which the government knew or should have known.

While the plaintiffs did not disagree that the defendant had less than 15 minutes of actual notice on the night of their decedent’s death, they argued that notice should be measured from the date of the most recent inspection by the defendant’s employees and that, in essence, the sign failed due to the employees’ failure to use a torque wrench to repair the sign rather than due to the winds on the night of the wreck.

The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, holding that they had presented no evidence as to what a “proper inspection” would have shown and that the defendant had no notice of a dangerous condition after its employees repaired the sign on March 30, 2009. Given that only a few minutes passed between the defendant’s actual notice of the problem on April 9, 2009 and the decedent’s death, the defendant did not have an opportunity to remedy the situation or warn the decedent of the problem. Accordingly, the court found that judgment should have been entered in the defendant’s favor.

Talk to a Lawyer About a Negligence Case

If you or a loved one has been hurt by another party’s negligence, an experienced east Texas motorcycle accident attorney at Earl Drott Law can help. Call us at (903) 531-9300 to schedule a free consultation regarding your Tyler or Smith County accident case.

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