If an individual or a business acts negligently and causes harm to someone, that person has the right to file a lawsuit against the responsible party and, if he or she is able to prove all four elements of negligence (duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages), potentially recover money damages to compensate him or her for injuries and property damage.
But what happens if a governmental entity (or an officer of the government) behaves in an allegedly negligent manner? Can the citizen sue and recover damages in the same manner as against a private individual or business?
Unfortunately, there is not always a clear answer to that question. Although the Texas Tort Claims Act does waive the sovereign immunity that the government would have under the statute in certain circumstances, the Act contains a great deal of procedural requirements and limitations that would not apply in a case against an ordinary individual or privately owned business.
Facts of the Case
In the case of Silva v. City of Pasadena, the plaintiffs were a husband and wife who attempted to cross the parking lot of an apartment complex. Unfortunately, however, the wife was struck by a patrol car driven by a police officer employed by the defendant city. The couple filed suit against the city, asserting a claim of negligence and alleging that the city’s governmental immunity had been waived pursuant to the Texas Tort Claims Act (codified at Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 101.001–.109).
The city filed a plea to the jurisdiction of the court, insisting that its governmental immunity remained intact because the officer was entitled to official immunity. The trial court granted the city’s plea and dismissed the plaintiff’s case. The plaintiffs then filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the city’s plea had, in essence, been a motion for summary judgment. As a result, the plaintiffs argued that they were entitled to 21 days’ notice prior to the hearing on the motion pursuant to Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). The motion was denied, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ suit, stating that a party could challenge a trial court’s subject-matter jurisdiction using either a summary judgment motion or a plea to the jurisdiction. Since the city chose to file a plea to the jurisdiction, the 21-day notice period for summary judgment motions did not apply.
In so holding, the court noted that the plaintiffs had appeared at the hearing on the city’s jurisdictional plea through counsel, although they had failed to file a timely response to the plea. On appeal, the plaintiffs did not challenge the sufficiency of the city’s evidence that the officer was entitled to immunity, nor did they challenge the substance of the city’s plea. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the plaintiffs’ case.
Although the court did not explain the exact factual situation on which the trial court based its finding that the officer was entitled to immunity, it is worth noting that the Act does not apply (and, hence, immunity remains intact) in situations in which a police officer is responding to an emergency call, as long as he or she does not act recklessly. In such a situation, both an individual officer and the governmental entity employing the officer are protected from liability for motor vehicle accidents (including a pedestrian accident like the one in this case).
For Help with Your East Texas Accident Case
If you need to talk to a lawyer about your legal rights, including the right to file a lawsuit against the party who caused your accident, we are here to help. East Texas car accident attorney Earl Drott has three decades of experience representing injured people against negligent motorists, governmental entities, and corporations. Call 903-531-9300 to set up an appointment to discuss your case. We serve all of east Texas, including Tyler and Smith County.
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