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CKJ Trucking, L.P. v. The City of Honey Grove

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

July 23, 2019

CKJ TRUCKING, L.P. AND STEPHEN JACK BOND, Appellants
v.
THE CITY OF HONEY GROVE, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 397th Judicial District Court Grayson County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. CV-16-0633

          Before Justices Partida-Kipness, Pedersen, III, and Carlyle

          OPINION

          ROBBIE PARTIDA-KIPNESS, JUSTICE

         Appellants CKJ Trucking, L.P. and Stephen Jack Bond assert that the trial court erred in granting the plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss filed by the City of Honey Grove. We reverse the trial court's judgment and remand.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 16, 2015, Ketan and Manali Amine were driving south on U.S. Highway 121 in Fannin County, Texas. At the same time, Zachary Scott Williamson, an off-duty police officer for the City of Honey Grove ("City"), was traveling north on Highway 121. Along this route, Williamson observed a Trenton police car with its lights activated parked behind a private vehicle and an unmarked SUV blocking the police car in. The cars were parked at a business which Williamson testified was a "liquor store attached to a gun shop." Williamson testified that the "scene did not appear to be secure" because he "didn't see any of the occupants from either vehicle either being detained or interviewed, which is a safety issue." Williamson further testified in his deposition that the scene drew his attention because he "didn't see the Trenton officer in the process of issuing a citation or speaking to anybody." Williamson testified that he thought this "atypical" situation raised serious concerns that the police officer might be ambushed, in distress, in need of assistance, or be in physical danger because the "patrol vehicle was blocked in at a liquor store after hours." Williamson testified that part of his concern was based upon the fact that this event had occurred "right after the first ambush killings in New York" and right about the time the "Black Lives Matter had really started kicking off and threats against the police officers had been made." In addition, Williamson was concerned that a crime was being committed in the parking lot. Williamson then engaged his red and blue emergency lights and attempted to make a U-turn to go south on Highway 121 but was unable to make the turn in a continuous manner. Although the Amines were able to stop on the south side of the highway and avoid colliding with Williamson, they were rear-ended by a tractor trailer that could not stop in time. The tractor trailer that collided with the Amines was owned or leased by CKJ Trucking and driven by Bond.

         In the underlying litigation, the Amines filed a lawsuit asserting various claims for negligence against Bond and CKJ Trucking. Bond and CKJ Trucking then filed a third party petition against Williamson and the City. In regard to the City, Bond and CKJ Trucking alleged that the City's governmental immunity was waived because the accident and the Amines' injuries were "proximately caused by the wrongful act or omission or the negligence of an employee acting within his scope of employment" and the accident arose "from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment." See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021(1). In response, the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, motion to dismiss and motion to sever ("motion to dismiss"). In the motion to dismiss, the City argued that it was entitled to a dismissal because the case did not fall within the limited waiver of immunity in Section 101.021 and the trial court lacked jurisdiction because Williamson was not acting in the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The trial court granted the City's motion to dismiss and ordered "that any and all claims against Defendant City of Honey Grove are dismissed, with prejudice to Third-Party Plaintiffs refiling same." Bond and CKJ Trucking then timely filed a notice of appeal.

         ANALYSIS

         In three issues, Bond and CKJ Trucking assert that the trial court erred in granting the City's motion to dismiss.

         Sovereign immunity from suit deprives a trial court of subject matter jurisdiction and 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). Whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction and whether a plaintiff has alleged facts that affirmatively demonstrate a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction are questions of law. Id. at 226. Accordingly, we review de novo a challenge to the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 228.

         The purpose of a plea to the jurisdiction 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). The plaintiff has the burden to plead facts affirmatively showing the trial court has jurisdiction. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226. In determining whether the plaintiff has met this burden, we construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiffs and look to the pleaders' intent. Id. If the plea to the jurisdiction challenges the existence of jurisdictional facts, the trial court considers relevant evidence submitted by the parties when necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issues raised. Id. at 227. 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. Id. at 228. When reviewing a plea to the jurisdiction in which the pleading requirement has been met and evidence has been submitted to support the plea that implicates the merits of the case, we take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant. Id. We indulge every reasonable inference and resolve doubts in the nonmovant's favor. Id. This standard generally mirrors a summary judgment standard under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 166a(c) and the burden is on the governmental unit as movant to meet the standard of proof. Id. After the governmental unit asserts and provides evidentiary support for its plea, the nonmovant is required to show that a disputed material fact issue exists regarding the jurisdictional issue. Id.

         Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, governmental entities are not liable for the negligence of their employees absent a constitutional or statutory waiver of immunity. See Univ. of Tex. Med. Branch at Galveston v. York, 871 S.W.2d 175, 177 (Tex. 1994). The Texas Tort Claims Act ("Act") provides a limited waiver of sovereign immunity. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 224; Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 101.001-.109. Specifically, the Act provides as follows:

[a] governmental unit in the state is liable for: (1) property damage, personal injury, and death proximately caused by the wrongful act or omission or the negligence of an employee acting within his scope of employment if: (A) the property damage, personal injury, or death arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment.

See Civ. Prac. & Rem. ยง 101.021(1)(A). The Act defines an "employee" as "a person, including an officer or agent, who is in the paid service of a governmental unit by competent authority" and the "scope of employment" as "the performance for a governmental unit of the duties of an employee's office or employment and includes being in or about the performance of a task lawfully assigned to an employee ...


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