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City of San Antonio v. Torres

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

November 15, 2017

CITY OF SAN ANTONIO, Appellant
v.
Patrick TORRES and Johnnie Dears, Appellees

         From the County Court at Law No. 2, Bexar County, Texas Trial Court No. 391356 Honorable Karen Crouch, Judge Presiding

          Marialyn Barnard, Justice Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice Irene Rios, Justice

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice

         AFFIRMED

         This case arises out of a collision between a City of San Antonio police vehicle and a pickup truck in which appellees Patrick Torres and Johnnie Dears were passengers. In this interlocutory appeal, the City of San Antonio contends the trial court erred by denying its plea to the jurisdiction based on the emergency exception to the waiver of immunity in the Texas Tort Claims Act. We hold the trial court did not err in denying the City's plea.

         Background

         Patrick Torres and Johnnie Dears were passengers in a truck traveling eastbound on Nolan Street in San Antonio. As the truck entered the intersection at Mittman, it was struck by a vehicle driven by San Antonio police officer Francisco Galvan. Officer Galvan was driving southbound on Mittman without his emergency lights or sirens activated, and he failed to heed the stop sign at the intersection of Mittman and Nolan, resulting in the collision. Officer Galvan testified he was responding to an "officer in trouble" call. Torres and Dears sued the City of San Antonio for personal injury damages, alleging that Officer Galvan negligently caused the collision. The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, asserting its governmental immunity from suit had not been waived because at the time of the collision, Officer Galvan was responding to an emergency situation, his actions were in compliance with the applicable statutes and ordinances, and he did not act with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.055 (West 2011). Torres and Dears amended their petition and responded to the plea. After a hearing, the trial court denied the City's plea to the jurisdiction and this interlocutory appeal followed. See id. § 51.014(a)(8) (West Supp. 2016).

         On appeal, the City argues the trial court erred because (1) Torres and Dears failed to plead facts demonstrating jurisdiction exists, (2) the City presented sufficient evidence to support its plea that Galvan complied with applicable laws and did not act with conscious indifference or recklessly in responding to an emergency, and (3) Torres and Dears failed to present evidence raising a fact issue regarding the jurisdictional facts.

         Governmental Immunity and Plea to the Jurisdiction

         As a governmental unit, the City is immune from suit unless that immunity has been waived. Because governmental immunity defeats a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction, it is properly asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction. See Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 225-26 (Tex. 2004). The Texas Tort Claims Act waives governmental immunity for claims for personal injury arising from the operation or use of a vehicle if the government employee would be personally liable to the claimant according to Texas law. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021(1) (West 2011). However, the Act modifies that waiver of immunity when the claim arises "from the action of an employee while responding to an emergency call or reacting to an emergency situation." Id. § 101.055(2). The governmental unit's immunity is not waived in those cases if the employee's "action is in compliance with the laws and ordinances applicable to emergency action, or in the absence of such law or ordinance, if the action is not taken with conscious indifference or reckless disregard for the safety of others." Id.

         The laws applicable to emergency vehicles allow the operator of an authorized emergency vehicle to exceed the maximum speed limit "as long as the operator does not endanger life or property, " and to proceed past a stop sign "after slowing as necessary for safe operation." Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 546.001(2), (3) (West 2011). Although the operator of an emergency vehicle has a duty to operate the vehicle "with appropriate regard for the safety of all persons, " liability is imposed only for reckless conduct. Id. § 546.005(1); City of Amarillo v. Martin, 971 S.W.2d 426, 429-230 (Tex. 1998) (interpreting Tex. Rev. Civ. Stat. art. 6701d, § 24(e), repealed by Act of May 1, 1995, 74th Leg., R.S., ch. 165, §§ 1, 24, 1995 Tex. Gen. Laws 1025, 1870 (current version at Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 546.001-.005)). An operator of an emergency vehicle is reckless if he commits an act he knows or should know poses a high degree of risk of serious injury. Martin, 971 S.W.2d at 430.

         A plea to the jurisdiction may assert the plaintiff failed to allege facts demonstrating the court's jurisdiction to hear the case and may also challenge the existence of jurisdictional facts. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226-27. We review the challenge to the pleadings to determine whether the plaintiffs allege sufficient facts to affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction to hear the case. Id. at 226. In our review, we construe the pleadings liberally in the plaintiffs' favor and look to the pleaders' intent. Id.

         When the plea challenges jurisdictional facts that are inextricably bound to the merits of the controversy, the trial court must examine the evidence presented and determine if a fact issue exists. Id. at 227. The procedure and our review mirror that of summary judgment practice. See id. at 228. Initially, the governmental unit "carries the burden to meet the summary judgment proof standard for its assertion that the trial court lacks jurisdiction." Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 635 (Tex. 2012). If the governmental unit presents evidence meeting that burden, the plaintiffs must show there is a disputed material fact regarding the jurisdictional issue. Id. "If the evidence creates a fact question regarding the jurisdictional issue, then the trial court cannot grant the plea to the jurisdiction, and the fact issue will be resolved by the fact finder. However, if the relevant evidence is undisputed or fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issue, the trial court rules on the plea to the jurisdiction as a matter of law." Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227-28.

         We review de novo the trial court's ruling on the plea to the jurisdiction. Id. at 228. We take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant and indulge every reasonable inference ...


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