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Needham Fire & Rescue Co. v. Balderas

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

April 18, 2017

NEEDHAM FIRE & RESCUE CO. AND MONTGOMERY COUNTY EMERGENCY SERVICES DISTRICT NO. 4, Appellants
v.
ESMERALDA BALDERAS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS NEXT FRIEND OFHEIDI PADILLA, A MINOR, Appellee

         On Appeal from the 113th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2015-29756

          Panel consists of Justices Busby, Donovan, and Brown.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          John Donovan Justice

         This appeal arises from the denial of a plea to the jurisdiction. For the reasons stated below, we reverse and render.

         Factual Background

         On February 4, 2014, there was a collision between a motor vehicle driven by Esmeralda Balderas and a Needham Fire & Rescue Company truck, driven by Joseph Galleno, Jr. There was a passenger in Balderas' vehicle, her minor daughter, Heidi Padilla.

         On May 22, 2015, Balderas filed suit against the Needham Fire & Rescue Company, Montgomery County Emergency Services District No. 4 ("ESD No. 4"), Galleno, and Montgomery County, Texas, for personal injuries sustained in the collision. Galleno was dismissed from the suit pursuant to section 101.106(e)[1] of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, and a nonsuit, without prejudice, was entered as to Montgomery County, Texas. Needham Fire & Rescue and ESD No. 4 filed a plea to the jurisdiction. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.106(e) (West 2011). Following a hearing, the trial court denied the plea and from that order Needham Fire & Rescue and ESD No. 4 (collectively "appellants") bring this appeal.

         Standard of Review

         We review a trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 224 (Tex. 2004). If the evidence creates a fact question regarding jurisdiction, the trial court cannot grant the plea, and the fact question will be resolved by the factfinder. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227-28. If the relevant evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact question, the trial court rules on the plea as a matter of law. Id. at 228.The standard of review for a plea to the jurisdiction based on evidence "generally mirrors that of a summary judgment under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 166a(c)." Id.; see Thornton v. Ne. Harris Cty. MUD 1, 447 S.W.3d 23, 32 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. denied). Under this standard, we take as true all evidence favoring the nonmovant and draw all reasonable inferences and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant's favor. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228. "[A]fter the state asserts and supports with evidence that the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, we simply require the plaintiff[ ], when the facts underlying the merits and subject matter jurisdiction are intertwined, to show that there is a disputed material fact regarding the jurisdictional issue." Id.; see City of Galveston v. Murphy, No. 14- 14-00222-CV, 2015 WL 167178, at *2 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] Jan. 13, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.) (if the movant presents conclusive proof that the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, then the nonmovant must present evidence sufficient to raise a material issue of fact regarding jurisdiction, or the plea will be sustained).

         Required Notice

         The parties do not dispute that Needham Fire & Rescue and ESD No. 4 are governmental units and immune from suit, except to the extent their immunity may be waived by the Texas Tort Claims Act ("TTCA"). See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.001 (West Supp. 2016). In their first issue, appellants contend immunity was not waived because Balderas failed to comply with the notice provision of the TTCA.

         The TTCA requires a plaintiff to notify a governmental unit of a claim in order to invoke a waiver of sovereign immunity under the statute. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.101 (West 2011).[2] The purpose of the notice requirement is to ensure prompt reporting of claims to enable governmental units to gather information necessary to guard against unfounded claims, settle claims, and prepare for trial. Tex. Dep't Crim. Justice v. Simons, 140 S.W.3d 338, 344 (Tex. 2004). The failure to comply with the notice requirements in the TTCA deprives the trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction. City of Dallas v. Carbajal, 324 S.W.3d 537, 537-38 (Tex. 2010) (per curiam). There are two methods of accomplishing notice: formal notice and actual notice. See id. We first address whether Balderas provided formal notice.

         Formal Notice

         Formal notice must be submitted in writing. Cathey v. Booth, 900 S.W.2d 339, 340 (Tex. 1995) (per curiam). Further, the notice must be received within six months after the day of the incident giving rise to claim. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.101(a).

         The record includes a copy of a letter addressed to the Needham Fire Department, dated April 30, 2014. An affidavit was filed by Steven Nelson, an employee ...


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