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City of Corpus Christi v. Muller

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

June 6, 2019


          On appeal from the County Court at Law No. 4 of Nueces County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Benavides and Longoria



         Appellant, the City of Corpus Christi (the City), appeals the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction. Appellees Marie Muller and Dean Muller filed suit against the City after Marie suffered injuries when she stepped into a pothole in the City Hall parking lot. By one issue, the City argues that the trial court erred when it denied its plea. We affirm.

         I. Background

         Marie was employed by the City through a temporary staffing agency, and she worked at City Hall in Corpus Christi, Texas. Around 8:00 a.m. on or about October 13, 2015, Marie parked in the City Hall parking lot and began to walk towards City Hall to report for work. During her walk through the parking lot, Marie stepped into a pot hole, fell, and suffered injuries. She brought suit against the City under a premises liability theory pursuant to the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA), and her husband, Dean, brought a claim for loss of consortium.

         The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing that the City was Marie's employer and that, because Marie's injury occurred in the course and scope of her employment, Marie's remedy was limited solely to the benefits under the workers' compensation insurance offered by the City. The City's plea, however, did not address how Marie's injuries occurred within the course and scope of her employment. More specifically, the City never alleged in its plea or introduced any evidence in support thereof that it implicitly or directly intended, authorized, or instructed Marie to use the parking lot as her access route to work. Appellees filed a response to the City's plea and argued that Marie's injuries did not occur in the course and scope of her employment, and, therefore, Marie was not subject to the exclusive remedy of workers' compensation insurance. After a hearing, the trial court denied the City's plea. This interlocutory appeal followed. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8) (allowing immediate appeal of an interlocutory order denying a plea to the jurisdiction by a governmental unit).

          II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea that seeks to dismiss a cause for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Harris Cty. v. Sykes, 136 S.W.3d 635, 638 (Tex. 2004). Its purpose is to defeat a cause of action without regard to whether the claims asserted have merit. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). We review the disposition of a jurisdictional plea de novo. Suarez v. City of Tex. City, 465 S.W.3d 623, 632 (Tex. 2015). The plaintiff has the burden to allege facts that affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction to hear a case. Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. Ramirez, 74 S.W.3d 864, 867 (Tex. 2002). We construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiff and look to the pleader's intent. Ryder Integrated Logistics, Inc. v. Fayette Cty., 453 S.W.3d 922, 927 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam). If the pleadings generate a fact question regarding the jurisdictional issue, a court cannot sustain the plea to the jurisdiction. Ryder, 453 S.W.3d at 927. If jurisdictional facts are disputed, we consider any evidence submitted by the parties to the trial court. Blue, 34 S.W.3d at 555.

         B. Applicable Law

         Governmental immunity defeats subject-matter jurisdiction in suits against subdivisions of the State, such as the City, unless that immunity has been clearly and unambiguously waived by the legislature. See Sykes, 136 S.W.3d at 638. Governmental immunity encompasses both immunity from liability and immunity from suit. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 224 (Tex. 2004). The TTCA waives governmental immunity for a governmental entity, like the City, for personal injuries caused by a condition of real property. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021(2); see Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 224; Jefferson Cty. v. Farris, 569 S.W.3d 814, 823 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, pet. filed) (per curiam) (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.025(a)). However, "[a] governmental unit that has workers' compensation insurance or that accepts the workers' compensation laws of this state is entitled to the privileges and immunities granted by the workers' compensation laws of this state to private individuals and corporations." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.028. The Texas Workers Compensation Act (TWCA) states that "[r]ecovery of workers' compensation benefits is the exclusive remedy of an employee covered by workers' compensation insurance coverage . . . for . . . a work-related injury sustained by the employee." Tex. Labor Code Ann. § 408.001(a); see City of Bellaire v. Johnson, 400 S.W.3d 922, 922 (Tex. 2013) (per curiam); see also City of Dallas v. Salyer, No. 05-12-00701-CV, 2013 WL 3355027, at *2-3 (Tex. App.-Dallas July 1, 2013, no pet.) (mem. op.). Therefore, if the exclusive remedy bar provided by the TWCA applies to an employee's claim against his city employer, then the city's governmental immunity is not waived. City of Bellaire, 400 S.W.3d at 924; see Durhart v. State, 610 S.W.2d 740, 743 (Tex. 1980) (noting that, in adopting the TTCA and providing workers' compensation coverage for state employees, the state retains its immunity and provides its employees an alternate remedy through workers compensation insurance).

         Under the TWCA, an injury is compensable and subject to the exclusive remedy bar if it "arises out of and in the course and scope of employment . . . ." Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 401.011(10); Berrelez v. Mesquite Logistics USA, Inc., 562 S.W.3d 69, 74 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2018, no pet.); Apollo Enters., Inc. v. ScripNet, Inc., 301 S.W.3d 848, 852 (Tex. App.-Austin 2009, no pet.). Section 401.011(12) of the TWCA defines the "[c]ourse and scope of employment" as "an activity of any kind or character that has to do with and originates in the work, business, trade, or profession of the employer and that is performed by an employee while engaged in or about the furtherance of the affairs or business of the employer." Tex. Lab. Code Ann. § 401.011(12). The long-standing rule is that to be considered within the course and scope of employment, the employee's injury must "(1) relate to or originate in, and (2) occur in the furtherance of, the employer's business." Leordeanu v. Am. Prot. Ins., 330 S.W.3d 239, 241 (Tex. 2010); see Am. Cas. Co. of Reading Pa. v. Bushman, 480 S.W.3d 667, 673-74 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2015, no pet.); Tex. Workers' Comp. Ins. Fund v. Rodriguez, 953 S.W.2d 765, 768 (Tex. App.- Corpus Christi-Edinburg 1997, pet. denied) ("Course and scope of employment is not limited to the exact moment when the employee reports for work, the moment when the employee's labors are completed, or to the place where work is done.").

         C. ...

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