Fort Worth Transportation Authority, McDonald Transit Associates, Inc., McDonald Transit, Inc., and Leshawn Vaughn, Petitioners,
Michele Rodriguez and New Hampshire Insurance Company, Respondents
November 8, 2017
Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Second
District of Texas
Justice Green delivered the opinion of the Court in which
Chief Justice Hecht, Justice Guzman, Justice Devine, and
Justice Brown joined.
Justice Blacklock did not participate in the decision.
W. Green, Justice
statutory-construction case, we must interpret the
damages-cap and election-of-remedies provisions of the Texas
Tort Claims Act (TTCA) with respect to independent
contractors performing essential governmental functions.
After a pedestrian was struck and killed by a public bus in
Fort Worth, her daughter sued the Fort Worth Transportation
Authority (FWTA), its two independent contractors, and the
bus driver under the TTCA. We must decide three issues: (1)
whether the TTCA's damages cap applies individually or
cumulatively for independent contractors performing essential
governmental functions; (2) whether an employee of an
independent contractor performing essential governmental
functions is protected by the TTCA's election-of-remedies
provision; and (3) whether the transit defendants should have
been awarded attorney's fees arising out of interpleader.
We hold that the damages cap applies cumulatively when, as
here, an independent contractor performed essential
governmental functions of a transportation authority. We also
hold that the TTCA's election-of-remedies provision
extends to cover an employee of an independent contractor
performing essential governmental functions. Finally, we hold
that the transit defendants are not entitled to
attorney's fees. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of
the court of appeals and reinstate the trial court's
judgment in favor of FWTA with respect to issues one and two.
We affirm the court of appeals' denial of attorney's
fees and remand of the case for a trial on the merits.
Peterson was walking across a street in downtown Fort Worth
when she was struck and killed by a public bus driven by
Leshawn Vaughn. Vaughn was an employee of McDonald Transit,
Inc. (MTI), a subsidiary of McDonald Transit Associates, Inc.
(MTA). Both MTA and MTI are independent contractors that
operate Fort Worth's bus transportation system.
Peterson's daughter, Michele Rodriguez, brought a
wrongful death suit against Vaughn, FWTA, MTA, and MTI
(collectively, the "Transit Defendants"). Rodriguez
pled a single count of negligence against all defendants
collectively, asserting a variety of acts or omissions,
including: "making an improper and unsafe turn, "
"driving at an unsafe and excessive speed, "
"negligently hiring . . . Defendant Vaughn, " and
"[f]ailing to establish and maintain safe and
appropriate bus routes." These allegations are not
allocated among or attributed to particular defendants, and
with the exception of those allegations that clearly refer to
the actions of the bus driver, discerning which defendants
are alleged to have committed which acts or omissions is
a regional transportation authority under Texas
Transportation Code chapter 452, and it provides public
transportation services, including bus routes, to areas under
its control. Tex. Transp. Code § 452.001(1). As such,
FWTA performs "essential governmental functions"
and its exercise of power under chapter 452 "is a matter
of public necessity." Id. § 452.052. The
Transportation Code permits an authority to "contract
for the operation of all or a part of the public
transportation system by an operator." Id.
§ 452.056(a)(3). Pursuant to this provision, FWTA
contracted with MTI and MTA to provide management and
operational services for its fixed-route bus operations. The
contract specifically provided that "MTA and MTI are
independent contractors of the FWTA" for purposes of
section 452.056(d) of the Transportation Code, and that
"[a]ll persons employed by MTA and MTI . . . are
employees, agents, subcontractors or consultants of MTA
and/or MTI, and not of the FWTA." Section 452.056(d)
limits the liability of a private contractor performing the
function of an authority under chapter 452 "to the
extent that the authority or entity would be liable if the
authority or entity itself were performing the
function." Id. § 452.056(d).
the contract, MTA agreed to furnish a Director of
Transportation Services of FWTA's Operating Functions,
who would be "responsible for the overall management and
operation of all components of the FWTA's Operating
Functions." MTI, a wholly owned subsidiary of MTA,
agreed to carry out FWTA's operating functions and
"employ all necessary and appropriate personnel . . .
including drivers." The contract also provided that MTI
would "procure all other goods and services reasonably
necessary and useful to manage and operate the FWTA's
public transportation system in accordance with the policies,
procedures, budgets and other directives of the President of
the FWTA"; that "[a]ll contractual obligations
which are to be entered into or assumed by MTI personnel on
behalf of the FWTA shall be in the name of the FWTA";
and that "[a]ll contractual obligations and related
liability entered into on behalf of the FWTA in accordance
with this paragraph shall become and remain valid obligations
alleged in her pleadings that the Transit Defendants operated
as a joint venture. Accordingly, she asserted that FWTA, MTA,
and MTI were vicariously liable for Vaughn's negligence,
if proven, under respondeat superior. Specifically, her
pleadings included the following:
3.06 Hereinafter in this Petition, all Defendants other than
Vaughn may be collectively referred to as "The [Transit]
3.07 At all material times and in all material respects, The
[Transit] Defendants owned, operated, managed, and/or
controlled the bus transportation system operating in Fort
Worth, Texas, commonly known as The T.
3.08 Upon current information and belief, The [Transit]
Defendants were engaged in a joint enterprise or joint
venture to operate and/or maintain such bus transportation
system, and each had the actual right to control the business
operations, policies, procedures, and activities of such
system. Additionally and/or alternatively, they comprised and
constituted a single business enterprise in such regard.
Additionally and/or alternatively, they were managers, vice
principals, agents, mere tools, instrumentalities,
departments, and/or alter egos of each other or of one or
another of them with regard to operation of such system. They
are vicariously and/or jointly and/or severally liable for
the conduct of one another in such regard.
3.09 Additionally and/or alternatively, at all material
times, Defendant Vaughn was an agent, servant, and employee
of MTA and/or MTI and was acting within the course and scope
of her authority as such agent, servant and employee.
Accordingly, MTA and MTI are liable to [Rodriguez] for her
conduct under the doctrine of Respondeat Superior.
sought declaratory relief that (1) FWTA was liable for the
conduct of MTA, MTI, and Vaughn; and (2) pursuant to the
Transit Defendants' contract, "whatever liability
may be incurred by Vaughn-as an employee of [MTI] and/or
[MTA]-constitutes part of the operating expenses of FWTA and
shall be paid by FWTA, and that Vaughn is a
third-party-beneficiary of such contract in such
authority under the Transportation Code, FWTA is considered a
"governmental unit" for purposes of the TTCA. Tex.
Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.001(3)(D). Generally,
governmental units are entitled to immunity unless it has
been waived. Reata Constr. Corp. v. City of
Dall., 197 S.W.3d 371, 374-75 (Tex. 2006). Under the
TTCA, the Legislature has waived the immunity of a
governmental unit, such as FWTA, for personal injury or death
proximately caused by the negligence of an employee acting
within the scope of employment if the "death arises from
the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle." Tex.
Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021(1)(A). However, the
liability arising out of this waiver of immunity is
"limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $100,
000 for each person." Id. § 101.023(b).
Recognizing that a regional transportation authority might
delegate some or all of the operation of its public
transportation system to one or more independent contractors,
the Legislature contemplated liability for such a situation:
A private operator who contracts with an authority under this
chapter is not a public entity for purposes of any law of
this state except that an independent contractor of the
authority that . . . performs a function of the authority . .
. is liable for damages only to the extent that the authority
or entity would be liable if the authority or entity itself
were performing the function . . . .
Tex. Transp. Code § 452.056(d). Rodriguez seeks the
statutory maximum of $100, 000 from each entity
separately-FWTA, MTA, and MTI-for a total of $300, 000. The
Transit Defendants counter that their liability is
cumulatively limited to $100, 000 by the TTCA's damages
TTCA also contains an election-of-remedies provision that
protects government employees: "The filing of a suit
under this chapter against a governmental unit constitutes an
irrevocable election by the plaintiff and immediately and
forever bars any suit or recovery by the plaintiff against
any individual employee of the governmental unit regarding
the same subject matter." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.
Code § 101.106(a). Rodriguez seeks to recover $5 million
from Vaughn individually, arguing that she is not protected
by this provision because she is an employee of an
independent contractor (MTI), and not of a governmental unit
filed her claim against the Transit Defendants on July 11,
2012. At that time, a separate lawsuit brought by New
Hampshire Insurance Company against FWTA and Vaughn arising
out of the same incident was already on file. N.H. Ins.
Co. v. Fort Worth Trans. Auth., No. 067-258065-12
(67th Dist. Ct., Tarrant County, Tex. Oct. 23,
2014). New Hampshire Insurance sought subrogation to recoup
workers' compensation death benefits paid to Rodriguez.
Anticipating that it would be drawn into the litigation
brought by New Hampshire Insurance, MTI filed a petition in
intervention as a party-defendant, counter-claimant, and
cross-claimant in that suit. Arguing that the $100, 000
damages cap under the TTCA applied cumulatively to all of the
Transit Defendants, MTI filed an interpleader petition and
tendered $100, 000 into the registry of the court in
accordance with Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 43.
See Tex. R. Civ. P. 43. In its interpleader
petition, MTI stated that it would not deny liability for
Shortly thereafter, New Hampshire Insurance nonsuited its
claim and the two suits were consolidated. This time, all of
the Transit Defendants filed an amended interpleader
petition, stating that though the claims were defensible,
they would not raise a defense if the court determined that
their total exposure was limited to $100, 000. After
consolidation, the Transit Defendants filed a motion for
partial summary judgment seeking dismissal of all claims, or
in the alternative, a declaration that the $100, 000 tendered
into the court's registry was the maximum amount owed
under the TTCA for all claims against all defendants.
Rodriguez also filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking a
declaration that the damages cap applied to each defendant
separately, and that the potential liability of Vaughn, as
the employee of a private contractor, was not capped.
trial court denied Rodriguez's motion and granted summary
judgment in favor of the Transit Defendants, ruling that
FWTA, MTI, and MTA should be treated as a single governmental
unit under the TTCA, limiting Rodriguez's claim to a
maximum recovery of $100, 000. Further, the trial court
dismissed Vaughn under the TTCA's election-of-remedies
provision and denied the Transit Defendants' request for
attorney's fees. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.
Code § 101.106. The court of appeals reversed in part,
holding that FWTA, MTI, and MTA were separate entities-each
subject to a separate $100, 000 damages cap, for a total of
$300, 000-and that Vaughn, an employee of MTI, was not an
employee of a governmental unit and therefore was subject to
unlimited personal liability and should not have been
dismissed. __ S.W.3d__, __ (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2016, pet.
granted). The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's
denial of attorney's fees, holding that the Transit
Defendants had not provided sufficient evidence to support
their requested fees. Id. at __. We granted the
petition for review. 60 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 1230 (June 19,
II. Standard of Review
review the trial court's summary judgment de novo.
Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co. v. Knott, 128
S.W.3d 211, 215 (Tex. 2003). A traditional motion for summary
judgment requires the moving party to show that no genuine
issue of material fact exists and that it is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c);
Provident Life, 128 S.W.3d at 215-16.
cross-motions for summary judgment, each party bears the
burden of establishing that it is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law. City of Garland v. Dall. Morning
News, 22 S.W.3d 351, 356 (Tex. 2000). When the trial
court grants one motion and denies the other, the reviewing
court must determine all questions presented and render the
judgment that the trial court should have rendered.
Id. This case involves the interpretation of
statutory language, which also demands de novo review
"to ascertain and give effect to the Legislature's
intent." Entergy Gulf States, Inc. v. Summers,
282 S.W.3d 433, 437 (Tex. 2009).
TTCA's Damages Cap
parties ask us to interpret two separate provisions of the
TTCA-Civil Practice and Remedies Code section 101.023 and
Transportation Code section 452.056-to determine whether the
TTCA's damages-cap provision applies cumulatively or
separately when an independent contractor performs essential
governmental functions. Under the TTCA, "liability of a
unit of local government . . . is limited to money damages in
a maximum amount of $100, 000 for each person." Tex.
Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.023. Under the
Transportation Code, a private operator who "performs
the function of the authority . . . is liable for damages
only to the extent that the authority or entity would be
liable if the authority or entity itself were performing the
function." Tex. Transp. Code § 452.056(d).
Transit Defendants argue that the plain language of these
statutes does not allow the imposition of liability above
$100, 000. For the reasons explained below, we agree. If FWTA
operated its bus transportation system and employed its bus
drivers directly, this case would not be before us.
FWTA's liability would be limited to $100, 000 and Vaughn
would be dismissed under the election-of-remedies provision.
The fact that FWTA delegated its transportation-related
governmental functions to independent contractors, as it is
statutorily authorized to do, does not somehow expand the
potential liability arising from those governmental
functions. Rodriguez argues that the TTCA allows her to sue
different entities for different causes of action arising
from the same event, and each is liable to its own,
respective $100, 000 cap. However, this argument does not
comport with the language of the TTCA.
construing statutes, our primary objective is to give effect
to the Legislature's intent. Tex. Lottery Comm'n
v. First State Bank of DeQueen, 325 S.W.3d 628, 635
(Tex. 2010) (citing Galbraith Eng'g Consultants, Inc.
v. Pochucha, 290 S.W.3d 863, 867 (Tex. 2009)). We rely
on the plain meaning of the text as expressing legislative
intent unless a different meaning is supplied by legislative
definition or is apparent from the context, or the plain
meaning leads to absurd results. Id. (citing
City of Rockwall v. Hughes, 246 S.W.3d 621, 625-26
(Tex. 2008)). A statute is ambiguous if its words are
susceptible to two or more reasonable interpretations and we
cannot discern legislative intent from the language alone.
Tex. State Bd. of Exam'rs of Marriage & Family
Therapists v. Tex. Med. Ass'n., 511 S.W.3d 28, 41
(Tex. 2017). When a statute is not ambiguous on its face, it
is inappropriate to use extrinsic aids to construe the
unambiguous statutory language. City of Rockwall,
246 S.W.3d at 626. But see Tex. Gov't Code
§ 311.023 (permitting courts to consider legislative
history and other construction aids regardless of ambiguity).
statutes contextually to give effect to every word, clause,
and sentence, Melden & Hunt, Inc. v. E. Rio Hondo
Water Supply Corp., 520 S.W.3d 887, 893 (Tex. 2017),
because every word or phrase is presumed to have been
intentionally used with a meaning and a purpose.
ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. v. Coleman, 512 S.W.3d 895,
899 (Tex. 2017); Morton v. Nguyen, 412 S.W.3d 506,
516 (Tex. 2013). Words not statutorily defined bear their
common, ordinary meaning unless a more precise definition is
apparent from the statutory context or the plain meaning
yields an absurd result. Paxton v. City of Dall.,
509 S.W.3d 247, 256 (Tex. 2017). To determine a term's
common, ordinary meaning, we typically look first to
dictionary definitions. Tex. State Bd. of Exam'rs of
Marriage & Family Therapists, 511 S.W.3d at 35. We
analyze the statutes at issue in this case no differently,
paying close attention to each word the Legislature has
plain language of Civil Practice and Remedies Code section
101.023 and Transportation Code section 452.056, each
standing in isolation, is fairly easily understood. What is
unclear in this case is the meaning of the two statutes read
together. When interpreting each provision, we must consider
the statutory scheme as a whole. 20801, Inc. v.
Parker, 249 S.W.3d 392, 396 (Tex. 2008) ("[W]hen
interpreting [a specific statute], we must consider its role
in the broader statutory scheme."); Helena Chem. Co.
v. Wilkins, 47 S.W.3d 486, 493 (Tex. 2001). Looking to
the statutory scheme, we strive to give the provision a
meaning that is in harmony with other related statutes.
See City of Dall. v. Abbott, 304 S.W.3d 380, 384
(Tex. 2010); see also La Sara Grain Co. v. First Nat.
Bank of Mercedes, 673 S.W.2d 558, 565 (Tex. 1984)
("Generally, courts are to construe statutes so as to
harmonize [them] with other relevant laws, if
possible.") (citing State v. Standard Oil Co.,
107 S.W.2d 550 (Tex. 1937)). "Put differently, our
objective is not to take definitions and mechanically tack
them together . . . [;] rather, we consider the context and
framework of the entire statute and meld its words into a
cohesive reflection of legislative intent." Cadena
Comercial USA Corp. v. Tex. Alcoholic Beverage
Comm'n, 518 S.W.3d 318, 326 (Tex. 2017). Therefore,
our analysis seeks to harmonize the two statutes at issue in
this case, giving effect to both within the context of the
TTCA and reflecting legislative intent.
immunity protects the State from lawsuits for money
damages." Reata Constr. Corp., 197 S.W.3d at
374 (quoting Tex. Nat. Res. Conservation Comm'n v.
IT-Davey, 74 S.W.3d 849, 853 (Tex. 2002) (plurality
op.)). Under our tradition, the judiciary has defined the
boundaries of the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity
and determined under what circumstances immunity exists, and
we have deferred to the Legislature to waive immunity.
Id. at 374-75. We have recognized that political
subdivisions, including governmental units such as FWTA, are
entitled to such immunity-referred to as governmental
immunity-unless it has been waived. Id. at 374. The
TTCA provides a limited waiver of governmental immunity for
certain suits against governmental entities, and it caps
recoverable damages. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.
Code §§ 101.021-.026; Mission Consol. Indep.
School Dist. v. Garcia, 253 S.W.3d 653, 655 (Tex. 2008).
Specifically, the TTCA waives governmental immunity to the
extent that liability arises from "the operation or use
of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment."
Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021(1)(A);
Garcia, 253 S.W.3d at 655-56. A key provision of the
TTCA is the damages-cap provision: "[L]iability of a
unit of local government under this chapter is limited to
money damages in a maximum amount of $100, 000 for each
person . . . ." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §
justifications for immunity-and by extension, for limitations
on waivers of immunity-revolve around protecting the public
treasury. Brown & Gay Eng'g, Inc. v.
Olivares, 461 S.W.3d 117, 121 (Tex. 2015). "At its
core, the doctrine 'protects the State [and its political
subdivisions] from lawsuits for money damages' and other
forms of relief, and leaves to the Legislature the
determination of when to allow tax resources to be shifted
'away from their intended purposes toward defending
lawsuits and paying judgments.'" Id.
(quoting IT-Davy, 74 S.W.3d at 853-54). Immunity
thus protects the public as a whole. Id. This
protection, however, comes at cost-in protecting the public
by shielding government funds from the costs of litigation,
immunity "places the burden of shouldering those costs
and consequences on injured individuals." Id.
(internal quotations marks omitted).
Court has historically taken a function-based approach to
governmental immunity-when the parameters of whether an
entity is a "governmental unit" are unclear, we
distinguish between an entity performing a governmental
function and one performing a proprietary function, affording
immunity to the former but not the latter. E.g.,
Wheelabrator Air Pollution Control, Inc. v. City of San
Antonio, 489 S.W.3d 448, 451-52 (Tex. 2016) (declining
to extend governmental immunity to a municipally owned
electric and gas utility because the operation and
maintenance of a public utility is classified as a
proprietary function); Rusher v. City of Dall., 18
S.W. 333, 334 (Tex. 1892) (extending governmental immunity to
a police officer because the officer acted as an agent of the
State in performing a governmental function on behalf of the
State); City of Galveston v. Posnainsky, 62 Tex.
118, 125-26 (1884) (explaining that governmental immunity
extends to a town when the town is performing duties
"exclusively for public purposes"). The TTCA
codified this proprietary-governmental distinction. See
Turvey v. City of Houston, 602 S.W.2d 517, 519 (Tex.
1980) (noting that the TTCA expressly waived governmental
immunity to the extent expressed in the statute but
"preserved the claimant's common law remedy to seek
unlimited damages for the negligent acts of a municipality
while engaged in a proprietary function").
while granting immunity has traditionally been the province
of the judiciary, the Legislature has the power to change the
common law classifications of certain functions as
proprietary or governmental, even when doing so has the
effect of extending immunity from suits that could have been
maintained at common law. City of Tyler v. Likes,
962 S.W.2d 489, 503 (Tex. 1997). This authority stems from
the Texas Constitution itself: "Notwithstanding any
other provision of this constitution, the [L]egislature may
by law define for all purposes those functions of a
municipality that are to be considered governmental and those
that are proprietary, including reclassifying a
function's classification assigned under prior statute or
common law." Tex. Const. art. XI, § 13. Thus,
"[i]n determining the boundaries of immunity as it
relates to whether a function is proprietary or governmental,
. . . courts should be guided . . . by the TTCA's
treatment of the proprietary-governmental distinction."
Wasson Interests, Ltd. v. City of Jacksonville, 489
S.W.3d 427, 439 (Tex. 2016); see also Tex. Transp.