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PHI, Inc. v. Texas Juvenile Justice Department

Supreme Court of Texas

April 26, 2019

PHI, Inc., Petitioner,
Texas Juvenile Justice Department, f/k/a Texas Youth Commission, Respondent

          Argued January 31, 2019

          On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas



         An unoccupied cargo van rolled backwards down an incline into a grounded helicopter. Fortunately, no one was harmed, though the helicopter may never be the same. Since the State of Texas owned the van, the legal issue before the Court in this interlocutory appeal is whether sovereign immunity bars the helicopter owner's claim. The court of appeals concluded that it did, over a dissent. Because we conclude that portions of the claim should have been allowed to proceed, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand the case to the trial court.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Petitioner is PHI, Inc., a private company that provides medical helicopter services. Respondent is the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, an agency of the State of Texas. The factual summary below comes from evidence the parties submitted while litigating the Department's combined plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment, from which this appeal arises.

         PHI owned a helicopter that flew to a hospital, the North Texas Regional Medical Center in Gainesville, Texas. The helicopter landed on a ground-level pad at the hospital. While the helicopter crew was securing a patient and preparing for takeoff, Christopher Webb, a Department employee, arrived at the hospital parking lot driving a fifteen-passenger van owned by the Department. Webb dropped off two passengers and parked the van on an incline near the helicopter. There was evidence that Webb pulled into a parking space, put the transmission in park, turned off the ignition, removed the key, and exited the van without setting the emergency brake.

         As Webb walked away from the van toward the medical center entrance, the van began rolling. The van crashed into the helicopter. A PHI paramedic then used the emergency brake to secure the van after finding he could not put it in park. A Department supervisor arrived at the scene later and claimed he saw the vehicle with the shifter in the park position. A post-accident inspection found that the van's shifter bushings and shift lever were worn in a manner preventing the vehicle from going fully into park or the ignition from going fully into the locked position. However, the parties point to no evidence in the record before us that Webb was aware of the worn gear-shift mechanism. A local police officer investigated the accident. His report states that the accident occurred after the driver placed the vehicle in park and identifies factor "54" as contributing to the accident. Factor 54 is "Parked and Failed to Set Brakes." Webb filled out an accident report wherein he stated that he placed the van in park, but he did not dispute the police officer's finding that he failed to use the emergency brake. Hours before the accident, another Department employee complained to a Department vehicle-control officer that he didn't feel comfortable driving the van on the highway because it was "running rough." Because of this complaint, the officer submitted a work order for a tune-up.

         PHI sued the Department. It alleged the Department breached its duty to act with ordinary care in maintaining and operating the van when its employees:

• failed to maintain the van when it knew or should have known the shifter bushings and shift levers were so badly worn that they would not allow the van to go fully into park or allow the ignition to go fully into the proper locked position;
• drove the van when it was not in a safe condition to be on the road;
• parked the van on an incline when Webb knew or should have known that the van would not stay in park; and
• failed to engage the emergency brake when parking the vehicle.

         The Department filed a combined plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the plea and summary-judgment motion. The Department took an interlocutory appeal. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 51.014(a)(8).[1] In a divided opinion, the court of appeals reversed and rendered a take-nothing judgment. 537 S.W.3d 707, 716 (Tex. App -Fort Worth 2017). The court of appeals reviewed the record evidence and relevant case law and concluded that sovereign immunity protects the Department from PHI's claims. Specifically, the court reasoned that the Tort Claims Act's waiver of sovereign immunity for operation or use of a motor vehicle, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021(1)(A), did not apply because this provision is limited to cases where the vehicle was in "active" operation or use "at the time of the incident," 537 S.W.3d at 716 (citing Ryder Integrated Logistics, Inc. v. Fayette Cty., 453 S.W.3d 922, 927 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam)). The court held that these elements were not present because the van did not begin to roll toward the helicopter until Webb had pulled into a parking space, ...

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