Texas Juvenile Justice Department Immune From Liability After Van “Parked” by Employee Rolls into Helicopter and Causes $74,000 Worth of Damage

East Texas motor vehicle collisions can happen in a seemingly endless array of circumstances. The most common scenario is when one car strikes another, but accidents can also arise between cars and trucks, trucks and motorcycles, trains and buses, and so on. As one can imagine, the appellate courts have reviewed many different types of accidents over the years. What exactly does it take for the court of appeals to deem a particular accident “novel?”

Facts of the Case

In a recent case (No. 02-17-00013-CV; Court of Appeals Second District of Texas) decided by the appellate court, the plaintiff was the owner of a helicopter-transport service that provided medical transportation services between hospitals. The defendant was the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. According to the plaintiff’s formal complaint against the defendant, the defendant’s employee parked a 15-passenger van in a hospital parking lot adjacent to a ground level helipad on which the plaintiff’s flight crew was securing a patient and preparing for takeoff. As the employee was walking away, the van began to roll, crashing into the helicopter and causing $74,000 in damage. Although the van was in “park,” a post-accident inspection revealed that the shifter bushings and level were so badly worn that the vehicle would not fully go into the proper lock position.

The plaintiff sought compensation, asserting that the defendant had been negligent in failing to properly maintain the van, in driving the van when it was not in a safe condition, and in failing to engage the emergency brake when parking. The defendant filed a plea to the jurisdiction of the court based on immunity and a motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, and it appealed.

Decision of the Court

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s orders denying the defendant’s plea to the jurisdiction and its summary judgment motion, rendering a judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s claims for lack of
subject-matter jurisdiction.

Sovereign immunity protects the Texas state government (and the agencies thereof) from liability lawsuits except in cases in which the legislature has expressly waived immunity. The Texas Tort Claims Act does waive immunity for damage proximately caused by the negligence of a state employee when the damage arises from “the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment,” but only when there is active use or operation of the vehicle or equipment.

Noting that it was bound to strictly construe the “operation or use” requirement under the Act, the appellate court found that the defendant had not waived its immunity for damages caused by the alleged negligence of its employee under the facts presented. In so holding, the court noted that it was undisputed that the employee had pulled the van into a parking space, turned off the ignition, removed the key, and locked the door prior to the time of the accident.

Since the employee “had altogether stopped operating or using the van before the unfortunate crash,” the defendant was not actively operating or using the van. Hence, the defendant maintained its immunity, and the plaintiff was not entitled to recover compensation for the damage to its helicopter.

Have You Been Hurt in an East Texas Car Accident?

There is no such thing as an “easy” car wreck case. Each and every claim is unique. If you or a loved one has been involved in an east Texas automobile accident, Earl Drott Law is here to help. Attorney Drott is board certified in personal injury law and has over 34 years of experience helping folks in and around Tyler and Smith County pursue the compensation to which they are entitled following a crash caused by a negligent individual, business, or governmental entity. Call us at 903-531-9300 for a free review of your case. If we don’t settle your case to your satisfaction or win a verdict in your favor at trial, you will not owe us a legal fee.

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