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Port of Beaumont Navigation District of Jefferson County v. McCarty

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

March 23, 2017

PORT OF BEAUMONT NAVIGATION DISTRICT OF JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS, Appellant
v.
KIRK HOWARD MCCARTY, Appellee

          Submitted on December 6, 2016

         On Appeal from the 58th District Court Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. A-197, 282

          Before Kreger, Horton, and Johnson, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HOLLIS HORTON Justice

         The Port of Beaumont Navigation District of Jefferson County, Texas (the Port) appeals the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction in a personal injury case filed by Kirk Howard McCarty, who was injured when the car he was driving was hit by a train. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8) (West Supp. 2016) (permitting an interlocutory appeal from a ruling granting or denying a plea to the jurisdiction filed by a governmental unit). When the collision occurred, McCarty was driving his car on a roadway across an easement held by the Port that crossed the tracks. In one issue, the Port argues that McCarty has not alleged or established that the Tort Claims Act waived its immunity from suit so that a court could exercise jurisdiction over the claims McCarty filed against the Port. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 101.021, 101.022 (West 2011) (Tort Claims Act). The Port concludes the trial court erred by denying its plea. We reverse and render in part, and we reverse and remand in part.

         Background

         In his suit, McCarty alleged that one evening in October 2014, he was injured when his car was hit by a train that was operated by employees of Gerdau Ameristeel U.S. Inc. McCarty alleged that the crossing where the collision occurred had been leased to the Port, and that under its lease, the Port "was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the leased premises." McCarty claimed that an unreasonably dangerous condition existed on the leased premises where the collision occurred, that the Port knew or should have known of the dangerous condition, that there were "no warnings or insufficient warnings of the dangerous condition on the land where [he] was injured[, ]" and that the Port "failed to provide adequate lighting" on the roadway where the train hit his car.

         In a plea to the jurisdiction, the Port asserted that it did not possess the premises where McCarty's injuries occurred, and that it merely held a roadway easement to the crossing, allowing it to access its property "via an improved roadway that crosses the railroad track." Nonetheless, the Port acknowledged in its brief that it "was responsible for maintaining its roadway access easement" at the crossing where the collision occurred.

         When McCarty responded to the Port's plea, he attached copies of the documents that set out the terms that are relevant to the roadway easement the Port holds at the crossing and a copy of a deposition the parties obtained from Matthew Hammer, Gerdau's safety manager, who investigated the collision for Gerdau after it occurred. According to McCarty, the evidence established that the Port is the entity that is responsible for maintaining the crossing where the collision occurred. Generally, the agreements establish that the Port was responsible for maintaining the easement, but they do not specifically state that the Port was also responsible for maintaining the artificial lighting near the crossing. Also, Hammer's deposition reflects that he reached the following conclusions from his investigation: McCarty "ran a stop sign and ran into our train[, ]" McCarty ignored signs that warned of the presence of the railroad tracks, and McCarty ignored signs near the crossing indicating that the traffic on the road was required to yield to trains.

         The evidence introduced at the hearing reflects that the crossing where the collision occurred requires vehicles to pass over six sets of tracks. The evidence also shows that the tracks curve in the area where the crossing is located. Hammer estimated the distance from the entry of the crossing to the exit of the crossing at approximately 75 yards. Hammer explained that there were artificial lights on poles near the crossing, but he was not asked to identify whether the poles are within the boundaries of the roadway easement, whether the Port installed the artificial lights that were in the vicinity of the crossing, whether the Port was responsible for maintaining the artificial lighting on the poles, or whether the lights on the poles were working when McCarty's collision with the train occurred.[1] Hammer also addressed whether he had evaluated the lighting at the crossing, and he testified that he never evaluated whether the artificial lighting at the crossing adequately illuminated the crossing. Hammer testified that other than McCarty's collision, no collisions had ever occurred at the crossing.

         Standard of Review

         Generally, a governmental unit of the State, such as the Port, has sovereign immunity that protects it from being sued in tort unless that immunity has been waived. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 101.001(3)(A), (B) (West Supp. 2016), 101.025 (West 2011); Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. Able, 35 S.W.3d 608, 611 (Tex. 2000). Under the definitions in the Tort Claims Act, the Port, which is a navigation district, qualifies as a "governmental unit." See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.001(3)(B).

         In its appeal, the Port argues the trial court erred by denying its plea to the jurisdiction. According to the Port, McCarty failed to allege any claims against the Port that fell within the limited waivers provided by the Tort Claims Act. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 101.021, 101.022. The Port contested the trial court's power to exercise jurisdiction over the dispute by filing a plea to the jurisdiction. A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea, which governmental units use to defeat a plaintiff's cause of action without regard to whether the plaintiff's claims have merit. See Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). The plea requires the trial court to decide whether the Legislature waived the governmental unit's immunity for the claims the plaintiff is asserting in its lawsuit. Id. Generally, with the exception of constitutional claims that are not at issue here, a plaintiff is required to show that the Legislature waived a governmental unit's immunity for the claims the plaintiff is making in the suit. See Fed. Sign v. Tex. S. Univ., 951 S.W.2d 401, 403 (Tex. 1997); Duhart v. State, 610 S.W.2d 740, 741 (Tex. 1980). In the absence of an express waiver of governmental immunity in a statute, courts lack jurisdiction to impose duties on governmental units by disregarding their immunity from suit. See Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 224-25 (Tex. 2004) (explaining that immunity to suit and immunity from liability are coextensive under the Tort Claims Act).

         Since McCarty seeks to recover against the Port for the personal injuries he sustained on property that he alleges was controlled by the Port, McCarty's claims sound in tort. However, the Tort Claims Act does not waive the immunity of governmental units for all tort claims; instead, the Act provides a limited immunity waiver in personal injury cases when the plaintiff's injury was caused by a premises defect or by a governmental unit's failure to warn of special defects, "such as excavations or obstructions on highways, roads, or streets[.]" Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 101.021(1)(B), 101.022(a), (b). McCarty argues that the conditions at the crossing on the night of his collision are properly categorized as either special defects or as premises defects. However, even when the Tort Claims Act applies, [2]the governmental unit's duty to plaintiffs who assert premises-defect claims is limited to the duty owed to a licensee who enters private ...


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