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Tarrant County v. Bonner

Supreme Court of Texas

May 24, 2019

Tarrant County, Texas, Petitioner,
v.
Roderick Lydell Bonner, Respondent

          Argued March 12, 2019

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

          JUSTICE DEVINE delivered the opinion of the Court, in which CHIEF JUSTICE HECHT, JUSTICE GREEN, JUSTICE GUZMAN, JUSTICE LEHRMANN, JUSTICE BROWN, JUSTICE BLACKLOCK, and JUSTICE BUSBY joined.

          OPINION

          JOHN P. DEVINE, JUSTICE

         In this summary-judgment appeal, we consider the liability standard that applies to an inmate's suit for personal injury allegedly sustained during his incarceration in the county jail. The inmate's injury was allegedly caused by a defective chair that collapsed during the inmate's treatment for diabetes. At issue is the application of two statutes that generally protect governmental actors and entities from liability for their own negligence in connection with certain inmate activities, including the medical treatment in this case. See T ex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 42.20; Tex. Gov't Code § 497.096. In reversing the trial court's summary judgment, which was based on these statutes, the court of appeals concluded that the statutes' liability standard of conscious indifference did not apply to some of the inmate's negligence claims. The court reasoned that the county's failure to dispose of the defective chair promptly or to warn of its defective condition were not failures "in connection with" the inmate's medical treatment and thus outside the statutes' scope. 568 S.W.3d 169, 173-74 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2018) (mem. op.). We disagree and conclude that the statutes apply to the inmate's claims. We further agree with the trial court that the inmate failed to raise a material fact issue under the statutes' heightened liability standard and accordingly reverse the court of appeals' judgment.

         I

         Robert Barham, a detention officer at the Tarrant County jail, damaged the leg of a chair he used during his work at the jail. The damaged leg caused the chair to collapse and Barham to fall to the floor. Although uninjured, Barham promptly notified his supervisor about the accident. The supervisor instructed him to place the chair in the jail's multipurpose room for disposal and to fill out a report. The multipurpose room is a locked room in the jail used for storage and, as the name implies, other purposes. Barham knew the room was occasionally used by nurses who were brought to the jail to treat diabetic inmates.

         The jail's population included a significant number of inmates with diabetes, including the plaintiff here, Roderick Bonner. Four days after Officer Barham's accident with the chair, Bonner went to the multipurpose room for a diabetes treatment. While there, Bonner attempted to use the damaged chair. It collapsed once again, pitching Bonner to the floor.

         Bonner sued Tarrant County for injuries he allegedly suffered from the fall. Bonner's pleadings alleged the County was negligent in three respects: (1) failing to remove the broken chair from the jail within a reasonable time, (2) failing to warn Bonner of the chair's unsafe condition, and (3) directing or allowing Bonner to use the broken chair during his medical treatment. Although the County is generally immune from suit and liability under common law principles of governmental immunity, Bonner's claims invoked the legislative waiver of that immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021(2) (waiving immunity from liability for personal injury or death caused by a condition or use of personal property); see also id. § 101.025 (waiving immunity from suit for those claims).

         The County's answer generally denied Bonner's allegations and affirmatively pled its immunity from liability under two similar statues, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure article 42.20 and Texas Government Code section 497.096. Later, the County filed a summary-judgment motion in which it argued that, despite the waiver of immunity under the Tort Claims Act, it retained immunity from liability for ordinary negligence claims under these two statutes. When applicable, these statutes impose a heightened standard of culpability for claims that arise from an act or omission connected with an inmate activity or program, like Bonner's diabetes treatment. See T ex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 42.20; Tex. Gov't Code § 497.096 (imposing conscious indifference or reckless disregard as the liability standard for inmate claims of injury in connection with inmate activities).

         The trial court granted the County's summary-judgment motion. Bonner appealed, and the appellate court reversed the summary judgment. The court of appeals concluded that the statutory immunity did not apply to at least some of Bonner's claims. 568 S.W.3d at 173-74. The court reasoned that Officer Barham's placement of the damaged chair in the multipurpose room and his failure to warn others about the chair's condition were not acts or failures to act in connection with Bonner's medical treatment and thus did not implicate the statutory immunities made the basis of the County's summary-judgment motion. Id.

         II

         As relevant here, article 42.20 states that certain individuals and governmental entities are not liable for damages arising from action or inaction in connection with an inmate activity, including treatment activities, if the action or inaction was performed in an official capacity and was not performed with conscious indifference:

An individual listed in Subsection (c) of this article and the governmental entity that the individual serves as an officer or employee are not liable for damages arising from an act or failure to act by the individual or governmental entity in connection with a community service program or work program established under this chapter or in connection with an inmate, offender, or releasee programmatic or nonprogrammatic activity, including work, educational, and treatment activities, if the act or failure to act:
(1) was performed pursuant to a court order or was otherwise performed in an official capacity; and
(2) was not performed with conscious indifference for the safety of others.

         Tex. Crim. Proc. Code art. 42.20(a) (emphasis added). Employees of the sheriff's department and the county are among the individuals listed in Subsection (c). Id. § 42.20(c)(2)-(3).

         Section 497.096 similarly provides that county and sheriff's department employees are not liable for damages arising from action or inaction in connection with an inmate or offender treatment activity if the action or inaction was not intentional, ...


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