Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas
Appeal from the 192nd Judicial District Court Dallas County,
Texas Trial Court Cause No. DC-17-13122
Justices Bridges, Partida-Kipness, and Carlyle
L. BRIDGES, JUSTICE
County appeals the trial court's denial of its plea to
the jurisdiction. In a single issue, the County argues the
trial court erred in denying its plea to the jurisdiction
because there is no waiver of governmental immunity for
claims arising from the County's discretionary decision
to use vehicles equipped with only certain types of
restraints. We reverse the trial court's order, render
judgment dismissing Jose Garcia's claims regarding the
County's use of restraints, and remand for further
September 2017, Jose Garcia filed his original petition
asserting negligence claims against the County. The petition
alleged that, on October 9, 2015, Garcia was "being
transported by Dallas County, specifically the Sheriff's
Department." Garcia alleged the County "did not
secure him or otherwise restrain him," and
"Defendant's erratic driving caused [Garcia] to be
thrown about the back of the vehicle and break a vertebrae in
his neck." Garcia alleged the County was "negligent
in failing to restrain [Garcia] and operate the transport
vehicle in a reasonably prudent manner."
County filed an original answer and plea to the jurisdiction
asserting governmental immunity from suit and/or liability
prevailed over Garcia's claims, and such governmental
immunity had not been waived. The County subsequently filed a
supplemental answer asserting it was not liable for the
actions of its employees taken in response to a sudden
emergency, and its immunity from suit and liability had not
been waived for its discretionary actions or decisions. The
County also filed a supplement to its plea to the
jurisdiction in which it argued the trial court had no
jurisdiction over Garcia's claims "regarding the
nonuse of seatbelts in the vehicle which was used to
transport [Garcia], because Dallas County retains
governmental immunity for any claims arising from
discretionary acts," including the decision not to equip
a van with seatbelts for persons riding in the back of the
supplement further developed the facts: Garcia was an inmate
at the County jail on October 10, 2015, and he was being
transported from Parkland Hospital by a deputy and three
officers in a van owned by the County. Garcia was handcuffed
and placed in the rear of the van. The rear portion of the
van was not equipped with seat belts, "though it did
feature a strap on the seat in the compartment in which
[Garcia] had been placed that inmates may hold onto while the
van is in motion." The van was travelling along
Continental Avenue on the way back to the jail, and a pickup
truck was travelling in the same direction in the right lane.
Deputy Ian Myers had previously noticed the pickup driving
erratically, so Myers stayed under the posted speed limit of
35 to avoid passing the pickup. "Without warning,"
the pickup suddenly moved across the lane occupied by the
County's van and made a u-turn through the median, which
was then under construction. The supplement stated Garcia
"alleges that the sudden stop caused him to be thrown
about the back of the van and suffer injuries." When the
van arrived at the jail, a nurse saw Garcia and advised
taking him back to Parkland. The supplement reiterated that
the waiver of governmental immunity in the Texas Tort Claim
Act does not apply to a claim that is based on the failure of
a governmental entity to perform an act if the law leaves the
performance of the act to the discretion of the governmental
entity. The County argued the decision whether to install
safety features in the van was discretionary, and the
County's governmental immunity was therefore not waived.
The County requested the trial court grant its plea to the
jurisdiction and dismiss Garcia's claims "regarding
the methods by which Dallas County restrained [Garcia] at the
time of the incident that is the basis of [Garcia's]
claims." Following a hearing, the trial court denied the
County's plea to the jurisdiction. This appeal followed.
single issue, the County argues the trial court erred in
denying its plea to the jurisdiction because there is no
waiver of governmental immunity for claims arising from the
County's discretionary decision to use vehicles equipped
with only certain types of restraints. In its brief, the
County makes clear "only the allegations made by Garcia
related to the failure to restrain Garcia are before this
immunity protects the state and its various divisions, such
as agencies and boards, from suit and liability, whereas
governmental immunity provides similar protection to the
political subdivisions of the state, such as counties,
cities, and school districts." Tarrant Reg'l
Water Dist. v. Johnson, 572 S.W.3d 658, 663 (Tex. 2019)
(quoting Travis Cent. Appraisal Dist. v. Norman, 342
S.W.3d 54, 57-58 (Tex. 2011)). The County is therefore
generally immune from suit and liability absent a waiver of
its immunity. See id.
Texas Tort Claims Act creates a limited waiver of immunity.
Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 101.001-.109.
The Act waives sovereign and governmental immunity, subject
to restrictions, in the following three areas: "use of
publicly owned automobiles, premises defects, and injuries
arising out of conditions or use of property."
Johnson, 572 S.W.3d at 664 (quoting Tex.
Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d
217, 224 (Tex. 2004)).
assertion of governmental immunity implicates the trial
court's jurisdiction. Rusk State Hosp. v. Black,
392 S.W.3d 88, 91 (Tex. 2012). Thus, immunity is properly
asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction. Johnson, 572
S.W.3d at 664 (citing Houston Belt & Terminal Ry. v.
City of Houston, 487 S.W.3d 154, 160 (Tex. 2016)).
Parties may submit evidence at the plea-to-the-jurisdiction
stage, and the trial court's review generally mirrors the
summary judgment standard. Johnson, 572 S.W.3d at
664 (citing Sampson v. Univ. of Tex., 500 S.W.3d
380, 384 (Tex. 2016)). "If the evidence creates a fact
question regarding the jurisdictional issue, then the trial
court cannot grant the plea to the jurisdiction, and the fact
issue will be resolved by the fact finder. However, 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."
Johnson, 572 S.W.3d at 664 (quoting
Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 227-28). The trial
court's ruling on the plea is reviewed de novo on appeal.
outcome of this appeal turns on section 101.056 of the Tort
Claims Act, often referred to as the discretionary function
exception. Section 101.056 provides:
[The Tort Claims Act] does not apply to a claim based on:
(1) the failure of a governmental unit to perform an act that
the unit is not required ...