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City of Texas City v. Woodkins

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

May 31, 2017

CITY OF TEXAS CITY, Appellant
v.
JOYCE WOODKINS, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 56th District Court Galveston County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 15-CV-0228

          Panel consists of Justices Busby, Donovan, and Wise.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          J. Brett Busby Justice

         Appellee Joyce Woodkins sued appellant City of Texas City for injuries she suffered in a bicycle accident at the city-owned Carlos Garza Sports Complex. Woodkins alleged the City waived its governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act because her injury was caused by a premise defect: an uncovered drain trench. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that it was immune from Woodkins's suit because evidence showed it did not have actual knowledge of the alleged defect. The trial court denied the City's plea, and the City filed this interlocutory appeal.

         For the reasons stated below, we conclude that the City failed to meet its burden to show there is no genuine issue of material fact as to its actual knowledge of the alleged defect. We therefore affirm the trial court's order.

         Background

         In her petition, Woodkins alleged that she was riding her bicycle on a sidewalk in the Carlos Garza Sports Complex when she unexpectedly crashed into an "uncovered and unmarked trench" that caused her to fall. As a result, Woodkins sustained multiple injuries.[1] The trench extends across the sidewalk and is six inches deep and thirty inches wide. The trench serves as a drain, directing rain runoff from the parking lot across the sidewalk into a grassy area.

         There are two trench drains that cross the sidewalk where Woodkins fell. Each drain was designed to be covered by a 169-pound metal plate; the edges of the plate sit in an indentation in the adjacent sidewalk so that the plate's top is flush with the sidewalk. According to Woodkins, one of the drains was missing its metal plate when she encountered it.

         Woodkins sued the City, alleging negligence and gross negligence. She also alleged that the City had waived its immunity under provisions of the Texas Tort Claims Act and the recreational use statute because the case involved premise and special defects and misuse of tangible personal property.[2]

          The City filed an answer followed by a plea to the jurisdiction. In its plea, the City argued, in part, that the recreational use statute limits the governmental unit's liability for premise defects when the injured party is engaged in a recreational activity. The City argued that under the statute, it did not owe Woodkins a greater degree of care than that owed to a trespasser, and therefore the City could be liable (and its immunity waived) only if it was grossly negligent or acted with malicious intent or bad faith. According to the City, Woodkins could not establish gross negligence without evidence that the City had actual knowledge of the alleged premise defect, which the evidence did not show. The City included affidavits from two city employees who testified that a crew member was assigned to the complex for routine maintenance on the day of the incident and the two previous days, but there was no work request regarding the drain or cover.

         After a hearing, the trial court denied the City's plea. This appeal followed.

         Analysis

         In two issues, the City argues that the trial court erred in denying the City's plea to the jurisdiction. We address these issues together and affirm the trial court's order.

         I. Standard of review

         Political subdivisions of the state, including cities, are entitled to immunity from suit under the common-law doctrine of governmental immunity. Reata Constr. Corp. v. City of Dallas, 197 S.W.3d 371, 374 (Tex. 2006). Under this doctrine, the City is not liable for the torts of its agents unless there is a constitutional or statutory waiver of immunity. City of Houston v. Daniels, 66 S.W.3d 420, 424 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2001, no pet.). A city may raise its immunity from suit in a plea to the jurisdiction, and we review the trial court's ruling on a plea de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226, 228 (Tex. 2004). We must uphold the trial court's order denying the City's plea to the jurisdiction on any legal theory properly before the court. See Carroll Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Nw. Indep. Sch. Dist., 245 S.W.3d 620, 625 n.19 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2008, pet. denied) (citing Guar. County Mut. Ins. Co. v. Reyna, 709 S.W.2d 647, 648 (Tex.1986)).

         A plea to the jurisdiction may challenge whether the facts alleged in the petition support a cause of action for which immunity has been waived; it may also challenge the existence of the alleged jurisdictional facts. City of Houston v. Ranjel, 407 S.W.3d 880, 887 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.). When the plea disputes that the facts alleged are sufficient to show a waiver of immunity, we construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiff, taking all factual assertions as true and looking to the pleader's intent. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226. We also "take as true all evidence favorable to the non-movant [and] indulge every reasonable inference and resolve all doubts in the non-movant's favor." Id. at 228. A plaintiff generally will not be required to marshal evidence and prove a claim just to overcome a plea to the jurisdiction. See Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 637 (Tex. 2012). If the plaintiff alleges basic facts adequate to establish the elements of a claim such that the court can determine whether it is barred by immunity, then the plaintiff will only be required to submit evidence if the defendant presents evidence negating one of those basic facts. Id.

         When the plea challenges the facts alleged and offers contrary evidence, the standard of review "generally mirrors that of a [traditional] summary judgment." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228. As movant, the City has the burden to prove there are no genuine issues of material fact and that the trial court lacks jurisdiction as a matter of law. See id. at 227-28. In other words, the governmental unit must conclusively negate at least one essential element of the pleaded cause of action for which immunity has been waived. City of San Antonio v. Peralta, 476 S.W.3d 653, 656, 660 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2015, no pet.) (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228); see KCM Financial LLC v. Bradshaw, 457 S.W.3d 70, 79 (Tex. 2015) ("In a traditional summary-judgment motion, . . . a defendant who conclusively negates at least one essential element of a cause of action . . . is entitled to summary judgment."). The governmental unit cannot simply deny the existence of jurisdictional facts and force the plaintiff to demonstrate the existence of a fact issue. See Thornton v. Ne. Harris Cty. MUD 1, 447 S.W.3d 23, 38 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, pet. denied) ("A no-evidence motion for summary judgment is not a valid means to attack the existence of jurisdictional facts.").

         II. Applicable law

         A.Texas Tort ...


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