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City of Arlington v. S.C.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

September 7, 2017






         We face a recurring issue whose contours remain murky even after several decades of judicial mulling: analyzing what constitutes a special defect for Texas Tort Claims Act purposes, this time a missized manhole cover that badly injured S.C. when she stepped on it and the cover rotated vertically, causing her to slip straight down onto its upright edge. Though not challenging the cover's status as an ordinary premises defect, the City of Arlington appeals the denial of its partial-summary-judgment motion on S.C.'s special-defect claim. Despite this particular defect's close proximity to the roadway-mere inches, despite its integration into a stormwater-inlet top connected directly to the road's curb, and despite the danger it posed to people who might be doing nothing more unusual than stepping out of a car or up onto the curb from the street, precedent requires us to hold that the trial court should have granted the City's motion. We therefore reverse and render.


         In early January 2015, SC and her family[2] were moving into a house in Arlington that her parents (the owners) had leased to them. S.C. parked her car at the curb in front of the house; the driveway was taken up by a U-Haul truck. As shown in the below photograph-which at the City's request S.C. illustrated during her deposition-S.C. got out of her car on the street side and started to walk up the driveway. After realizing that her car was unlocked, rather than go back into the street S.C. simply walked behind the mailbox and stepped onto the concrete stormwater-inlet cover, or top, that was basically an extension of the curb; S.C. intended to lock her car on the passenger Side.

         (Image Omitted)

         Inches from the street was a manhole cover embedded in the stormwater-inlet top that extended from the curb into the yard and within the City's right-of-way. That cover lined up "exactly, " in S.C.'s words, with her car's passenger-side door. Because the manhole cover was the wrong size for its opening, when S.C. stepped on it the cover rotated vertically, causing her right leg to plunge into the hole. Gravity then took the right side of her body down onto the leading edge of the manhole cover, and S.C. seriously injured her pubic bone and groin area as she was left straddling the now-perpendicular manhole cover. After S.C.'s husband and stepson lifted her out of the hole, S.C.'s mother drove her to the emergency room at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where S.C. remained hospitalized for four to six days.

         The City's designated representative acknowledged in his deposition that the improperly sized manhole cover was a "hazard" and that the City "should have known" that the cover was undersized.

         Alleging both a special defect and an ordinary premises defect in her live pleading, SC sued the City of Arlington under the Texas Tort Claims Act. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 101.021, 101.022 (West 2011). S.C.'s husband (T.C.), T.C.'s minor son B.C., and S.C.'s three minor children pleaded bystander injuries. The City moved for partial summary judgment only on the special-defect claim; the trial court denied the motion after a hearing, and this appeal followed.[3]

         Standard of Review

         A governmental entity such as the City of Arlington may challenge subject-matter jurisdiction by a variety of procedural vehicles, including by moving for summary judgment. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000) ("The absence of subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised by a plea to the jurisdiction, as well as by other procedural vehicles, such as a motion for summary judgment."). Because subject-matter jurisdiction and related issues of governmental immunity are questions of law, they are appropriately decided on summary judgment. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004); Wichita Cty. v. Bonnin, 268 S.W.3d 811, 815 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2008, pet. denied) (citing Rhone-Poulenc, Inc. v. Steel, 997 S.W.2d 217, 223 (Tex. 1999)). We review such matters-as well as the purely legal question of whether something is an ordinary premises defect or a special defect-de novo. Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. York, 284 S.W.3d 844, 847 (Tex. 2009).

         The Texas Tort Claims Act and Premises Liability:

         Ordinary vs. special defects; proximity to a roadway; excavation covers

         The Texas Tort Claims Act has been described as providing a "limited waiver of sovereign immunity, allowing suits to be brought against governmental units only in certain, narrowly defined circumstances." Tex. Dep't of Crim. Justice v. Miller, 51 S.W.3d 583, 587 (Tex. 2001) (citing Dallas Cty. MHMR v. Bossley, 968 S.W.2d 339, 341 (Tex.) ("[T]he Legislature intended the waiver in the Act to be limited."), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1017 (1998)). One of those narrow circumstances involves personal-injury claims arising from premises defects. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. ยง 101.021(2) (stating that a "governmental unit" is liable for personal injury ...

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