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Burns v. San Patricio County

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

August 8, 2019

BART BURNS, Appellant,
v.
SAN PATRICIO COUNTY AND DONALD YOUNG, Appellees.

          On appeal from the 343rd District Court of San Patricio County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Benavides and Longoria

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORA L. LONGORIA, JUSTICE

         Appellant Bart Burns argues on appeal that the trial court erred by granting appellee San Patricio County's (the County) plea to the jurisdiction and dismissing the case without allowing him to replead his claims. We affirm.

         I. Background

         On June 26, 2017, Burns was involved in a crash when the aircraft he was piloting landed at T.P. McCampbell-Porter Airport (Airport), which is owned and operated by the County. As he touched down on the runway of the Airport, a vehicle towing a trailer passed in front of him causing a collision between his aircraft and the trailer.

         Burns filed his original petition against the County and Donald Young[1], the operator of the vehicle, alleging negligence by both defendants. The County filed its plea to the jurisdiction and answer to Burns's petition, arguing that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the cause of action because the County is protected by sovereign immunity. Prior to the hearing on the County's plea to the jurisdiction, the County filed a supplemental plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss, to which Burns filed a response. Burns argued that the County's sovereign immunity was waived under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA). See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021(2). The County filed a reply to Burns's response.

         The trial court held a hearing on the County's plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss. After hearing testimony and being presented with evidence, the trial court granted the County's plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss. This appeal followed.

         II. Plea to the Jurisdiction

         Burns contends that the trial court erred in granting the County's plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss because: (1) sovereign immunity was waived as properly raised in his petition; and (2) if his claim was "improperly or insufficiently pled," he should have been given the opportunity to replead.

         A. Governmental Immunity

         The TTCA provides a limited waiver of governmental immunity and, unless waived, governmental immunity from suit deprives a trial court of subject matter jurisdiction in a suit against a governmental unit such as the County. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 224 (Tex. 2004) (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 101.001-.109). We review a trial court's ruling on subject-matter jurisdiction de novo. Id. at 226, 228. "A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea, the purpose of which 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). In most cases, a plea to the jurisdiction "should be decided without delving into the merits of the case." Id.; see Jefferson County v. Farris, 569 S.W.3d 814, 820 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2018, pet. filed).

         In reviewing a trial court's jurisdictional ruling, we construe the pleadings in the plaintiff's favor. Tex. Ass'n of Bus. v. Tex. Air Control Bd., 852 S.W.2d 440, 446 (Tex. 1993). A plaintiff bears the burden to allege facts affirmatively demonstrating the trial court's jurisdiction to hear the case. Dall. Area Rapid Transit v. Whitley, 104 S.W.3d 540, 542 (Tex. 2003). We consider only the plaintiff's pleadings and evidence relevant to the jurisdictional inquiry. Id. We take as true all evidence favorable to the plaintiff and indulge every reasonable inference and resolve all doubts in his favor. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 228. "[T]his standard generally mirrors that of a summary judgment." Id. Thus, the burden is on the movant to present evidence establishing that the trial court lacks jurisdiction as a matter of law. Id. Thereafter, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate that a disputed issue of material fact exists regarding the jurisdictional issue. Id. "If a fact issue exists, the trial court should deny the plea." Mission Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 635 (Tex. 2012). "But if the relevant evidence is undisputed or the plaintiff fails to raise a fact question on the jurisdictional issue, the trial court rules on the plea as a matter of law." Id.

         "If there is a gap in jurisdictional facts, the trial court is required to afford the plaintiff an opportunity to amend its pleadings." Green Tree Servicing, LLC v. Woods, 388 S.W.3d 785, 792 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, no pet.). A trial court's subject-matter jurisdiction cannot be challenged in a no-evidence motion for summary judgment or by an allegation in a plea to ...


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