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The University of Texas at Austin v. Garner

Supreme Court of Texas

October 18, 2019

The University of Texas at Austin, Petitioner,
v.
April Garner, Respondent

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

          PER CURIAM.

         The Recreational Use Statute limits the Tort Claims Act's waiver of governmental immunity by lowering the duty of care owed to a person who enters and engages in "recreation" on a governmental unit's property. Specifically, the governmental unit owes that person only the degree of care owed to a trespasser-that is, the duty not to injure intentionally or through gross negligence-and thus retains immunity from ordinary negligence claims even when the Tort Claims Act would otherwise waive such immunity. In this case, the plaintiff sued a state university for negligence after she was injured by a university employee while bicycling on university-owned property. The trial court denied the university's plea to the jurisdiction, and the court of appeals affirmed, holding that the Tort Claims Act waived the university's immunity and that the Recreational Use Statute did not apply. We hold that the Recreational Use Statute applies and that the Tort Claims Act therefore does not waive the university's immunity with respect to the plaintiff's ordinary negligence claim. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals' judgment.

         The University of Texas at Austin owns and operates the Colorado Apartments, a student-housing complex located on the north side of Lady Bird Lake in Austin. Within the complex are four roads that permit two-way traffic around the complex and contain parking spaces that are oriented perpendicularly to the road. One of those roads is Alvin, which connects to Lake Austin Boulevard (on Alvin's northwestern end) and Hearn Street (on Alvin's southeastern end), both of which are city property. Hearn Street dead-ends at an entrance to Eilers (Deep Eddy) Park. Although no-trespassing signs at both ends of Alvin state that the apartments are University property, bicyclists commonly use the road as a shortcut to access Lady Bird Lake and the trails that surround it.

         On April 14, 2015, April Garner was traveling by bicycle to the trail head at Eilers Park, where she planned to meet a friend and "[r]ide the trail." She entered Alvin from Lake Austin Boulevard and rode southeast toward Hearn Street. At the same time, University employee Angel Moreno was backing out from a southwest-facing parking space on Alvin in a University-owned vehicle. Moreno, who claims his view to the northwest was partially blocked by a car parked to his right, failed to see Garner approaching from behind and to the right and struck her with the vehicle.[1] Garner sustained a fractured wrist and facial cuts and bruises, among other injuries.

         Garner sued the University for negligence, contending that the Tort Claims Act waived the University's immunity. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021(1) (waiving immunity from suit for injuries caused by the negligence of an employee acting within the scope of his employment, if the injury arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle and the employee would be personally liable to the claimant under Texas law). The University filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that Garner was trespassing on its property at the time of the incident and that the University therefore owed only a duty not to injure her intentionally or through gross negligence. The University further argued that, to the extent Garner was authorized to be on its property, the Recreational Use Statute nevertheless classified her as a trespasser. See id. § 75.002. Because Garner failed to allege or produce evidence of conduct beyond ordinary negligence, the University argued that the Tort Claims Act did not waive its immunity.

         The trial court denied the University's plea, and the University appealed. See id. § 51.014(a)(8) (authorizing an appeal from an interlocutory order that grants or denies a plea to the jurisdiction by a governmental unit). The court of appeals affirmed, holding that Garner was not a trespasser under either the common law or the Recreational Use Statute and that the Tort Claims Act therefore waived the University's immunity.___ S.W.3d___, ___ (Tex. App.- Austin 2018).

         Generally, the Recreational Use Statute limits the liability of all landowners-public and private-who permit others to use their property for activities the statute defines as "recreation." Univ. of Tex. at Arlington v. Williams, 459 S.W.3d 48, 49 (Tex. 2015); see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 75.001-.002. Such landowners are "effectively immunize[d]" from ordinary negligence claims, owing those who use their property for recreation only the duty not to injure them intentionally or through gross negligence. See Williams, 459 S.W.3d at 49; Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 75.002, .007(b). As applied to government landowners with immunity from suit and liability, the statute's effect is to limit the scope of the Tort Claims Act's waiver of that immunity "by classifying recreational users as trespassers and requiring proof of gross negligence, malicious intent, or bad faith." Suarez v. City of Texas City, 465 S.W.3d 623, 627 (Tex. 2015); see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 75.003(g) ("To the extent that this chapter limits the liability of a governmental unit under circumstances in which the governmental unit would be liable under Chapter 101, this chapter controls.").

         In this case, Garner's only claim against the University sounds in ordinary negligence. As noted, she relies on the Tort Claims Act's waiver of immunity with respect to claims for personal injury proximately caused by the negligence of an employee acting within the scope of his employment if the injury "arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle" and "the employee would be personally liable to the claimant according to Texas law." Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021(1). She does not allege that the University or Moreno acted with gross negligence, malicious intent, or bad faith. Thus, if the Recreational Use Statute applies, then the University is immune from suit, and the courts lack jurisdiction over Garner's claim. See Suarez, 465 S.W.3d at 637 (dismissing the plaintiff's claims against a governmental unit for lack of jurisdiction where the Recreational Use Statute applied and the plaintiff provided no evidence of gross negligence as required to waive the unit's immunity).

The Recreational Use Statute provides in pertinent part:
(c) If an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property other than agricultural land gives permission to another to enter the premises for recreation, the owner, lessee, or occupant, by giving the permission, does not:
(1)assure that the premises are safe for that purpose;
(2)owe to the person to whom permission is granted a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises; or
(3) assume responsibility or incur liability for any injury to any individual or property caused by any act of the person ...

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