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City of San Antonio v. Mendoza

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

September 13, 2017

City of SAN ANTONIO, Appellant
Carlos MENDOZA, Appellee

         From the 73rd Judicial District Court, Bexar County, Texas Trial Court No. 2016CI09979 Honorable Michael E. Mery, Judge Presiding

          Sitting: Karen Angelini, Justice, Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice, Irene Rios, Justice



         The City of San Antonio appeals from an interlocutory order denying its plea to the jurisdiction. We affirm.


         On July 30, 2015, Frank Gonzales, an on-duty San Antonio City Park Police Officer driving a police car, rear-ended a van driven by Carlos Mendoza. Shortly after the accident, Gonzales's supervisor, Fidencio Herrera, arrived at the scene to investigate and spoke to Gonzales and Mendoza. Herrera prepared investigative reports concerning the accident.

         Almost a year later, Mendoza sued the City of San Antonio for damages under the Texas Tort Claims Act, alleging that Gonzales's negligence had caused the accident and that Mendoza had sustained serious and permanent bodily injury in the accident. Mendoza's petition also alleged that the City was provided with formal and actual notice of his claims.

         The City generally denied the allegations in Mendoza's petition. The City also filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because Mendoza had failed to provide it with timely notice, either actual or formal, of his claim as required by law. In response, Mendoza did not dispute that his formal notice was untimely but argued that he had satisfied the notice requirement because he had told Gonzales and Herrera about his injury at the scene of the accident. Therefore, according to Mendoza, the City had actual notice of his injury. After a hearing, the trial court denied the plea to the jurisdiction. The City appealed.

         Notice Requirement

         Absent a waiver, governmental entities are generally immune from suits for damages. Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. at Dallas v. Estate of Arancibia, 324 S.W.3d 544, 546 (Tex. 2010). The Texas Tort Claims Act waives immunity from suit for negligent acts in certain circumstances, including personal injury arising from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021 (West 2011). To take advantage of this waiver, a claimant must notify the governmental unit of the negligent act not later than six months after the day that the incident giving rise to the claim occurred. Id. § 101.101(a). The notice must reasonably describe the injury, the time and place of the incident, and the incident itself. Id.; Arancibia, 324 S.W.3d at 546. However, formal notice is not required "if the governmental unit has actual notice" "that the claimant has received some injury." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.101(c).

         The purpose of section 101.101's notice requirement is to ensure the prompt reporting of claims in order to enable governmental units to gather information necessary to guard against unfounded claims, settle claims, and prepare for trial. Cathey v. Booth, 900 S.W.2d 339, 341 (Tex. 1995). "The notice required by section 101.101 is jurisdictional and is a condition of the Act's waiver of immunity from suit." City of San Antonio v. Cervantes, 521 S.W.3d 390, 393 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2017, no pet.); see Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 311.034 (West 2013). Thus, in the absence of timely notice of a claim, a governmental unit retains its immunity from suit. Cervantes, 521 S.W.3d at 393-94 (citing City of Dallas v. Carbajal, 324 S.W.3d 537, 537-38 (Tex. 2010)).

         Plea to the Jurisdiction

         Because immunity from suit defeats a trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction, it may be raised in a plea to the jurisdiction. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 225-26 (Tex. 2004). "[A] court deciding a plea to the jurisdiction is not required to look solely to the pleadings but may consider evidence and must do so when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issues raised." Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 555 (Tex. 2000). A plaintiff bears the burden of affirmatively demonstrating a trial court's jurisdiction. Heckman v. Williamson Cnty., 369 S.W.3d 137, 150 (Tex. 2012); Cervantes, 521 S.W.3d at 394.

         "[I]n a case in which the jurisdictional challenge implicates the merits of the plaintiffs' cause of action and the plea to the jurisdiction includes evidence, the trial court reviews the relevant evidence to determine if a fact issue exists." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227. This standard generally mirrors the standard employed in evaluating summary judgments. Id. at 228. A jurisdictional issue implicates the merits of a case when the determination of many, if not most, of the challenged jurisdictional facts will also determine whether ...

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