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Juarez v. Harris County

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

November 5, 2019

VALENTIN JUAREZ AND BERTHA JUAREZ, HUSBAND AND WIFE AND NEXT FRIEND OF YOLANDA JUAREZ, DECEASED, AND RAUL MACIAS, Appellants
v.
HARRIS COUNTY, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 55th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2015-48636.

          Panel consists of Justices Kelly, Hightower, and Countiss.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard Hightower Justice.

         Plaintiffs Valentin Juarez and Bertha Juarez, Husband and Wife and Next Friend of Yolanda Juarez, Deceased, and Raul Macias (collectively, Juarez) sued appellee Harris County, alleging negligence arising out of an automobile accident in which a third party, Lanice Tobias, Jr., struck and killed Yolanda Juarez while he was fleeing from law enforcement, including Harris County Sheriff's Deputies, in a stolen vehicle. The County filed a motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, a plea to the jurisdiction asserting that it was immune from suit in this case. The trial court granted the County's plea to the jurisdiction, dismissing all of Juarez's claims against the County.

         In two issues on appeal, Juarez argues that there are genuine issues of material fact that preclude the dismissal of the claims. Because we conclude that this case falls within the emergency-response exception to the Texas Tort Claims Act's limited waiver of immunity, and, thus, the County remains immune from Juarez's suit, we affirm the trial court's grant of the County's plea to the jurisdiction.

         Background

         On April 23, 2015, deputies with the Harris County Sheriff's Office responded to a call from the Houston Police Department requesting help locating a vehicle that had been reported stolen in a carjacking two days earlier. HPD had tracked the stolen truck using GPS, and HCSO Deputy William Coker was in the approximate area. Coker found the stolen truck parked in front of a strip mall and kept it under surveillance until three individuals got into the truck and drove away. Deputy Coker and another HCSO patrol car containing two more deputies followed as the truck-later determined to be driven by Lanice Tobias, Jr., (a co-defendant in this case)-left the parking lot.

         The deputies observed Tobias run a stop sign and, knowing that the truck he was driving had been reported stolen in an armed robbery and thus that the three suspects in the truck should be considered dangerous, Deputy Coker attempted to initiate a traffic stop by using his marked patrol car's emergency lights and sirens. Tobias did not stop but instead sped away from the deputies and engaged in a series of dangerous driving maneuvers including speeding, running multiple stop signs, and making illegal lane changes. Deputies followed the stolen truck, using their emergency lights and sirens, until Tobias ran a red light at the intersection at Antoine and Fallbrook, striking and killing Yolanda Juarez. The entire pursuit lasted less than one minute.

         Juarez sued numerous parties, including the County and Tobias, for negligence. Juarez alleged that Tobias "disregarded the red traffic signal light and entered the intersection" at Fallbrook and Antoine, striking [Yolanda's] vehicle and killing her. The pleadings state that Tobias was a "robbery suspect and was arrested at the scene," that before the crash, Tobias had been "involved in a high speed chase" with law enforcement, and that, "because of the pursuit by [law enforcement] officers, [Tobias] ran a red light crashing into [Yolanda's] vehicle." In addition to the negligence cause of action against Tobias for, among other things, failing to keep a proper lookout and failing to yield the right of way, Juarez asserted that law enforcement officers were negligent in their pursuit of Tobias and "operated their vehicles in the same negligent and careless manner and also violated the duties that they owed to [Yolanda] in exercising ordinary care and to operate their vehicles during the chase as a reasonable and prudent person would."

         The County moved for summary judgment, or alternatively, for dismissal based on a plea to the jurisdiction, asserting that it was entitled to have Juarez's claims dismissed on immunity grounds. The County asserted two arguments in support of its claim that the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) does not waive its immunity from suit: (1) because the deputies in question have official immunity, the County's immunity is not waived by the limited waiver provisions in sections 101.021 and 101.025; and (2) the emergency-response exception set out in section 101.055 applies.

         In connection with its combined motion for summary judgment and plea to the jurisdiction, the County provided the affidavit of Deputy Coker, accident-investigation reports generated from the different investigating officers including statements from witnesses and other deputies and officers, and an affidavit from an expert witness, Albert Ortiz.

         Deputy Coker's affidavit set out the facts recounted above, emphasizing that he and the other deputies, Deputy A. Doucet and Deputy L. Gonzales, observed Tobias run a stop sign as he turned onto a neighborhood street near the strip mall. Deputy Coker "activated [his] emergency lights and sirens to initiate a traffic stop." Deputies Doucet and Gonzales likewise activated their emergency lights and sirens. The truck "failed to pull over and accelerated away" from Deputy Coker, who was driving a HCSO marked patrol car. According to Deputy Coker, as chase ensued:

Deputies Gonzales and Doucet joined the pursuit behind my unit. The suspect then ran two stop signs and entered a school zone at a high rate of speed. I followed the [stolen truck] at safe speeds and a safe distance. The [truck] ran a stoplight at Antoine Drive while turning south. The [truck] was moving in the [w]est lane of Antoine and came upon a truck which was stalled and blocking the lane. The suspect then illegally shifted lanes, cutting off another car and using the other car to block my pursuit. Even though I was prevented from immediately following the [stolen truck], I never lost sight of the suspect and resumed pursuit once safe.
I proceeded to follow the suspect to the intersection of Fallbrook and Antoine. I notice that the traffic signal was red and slowed down to prevent any accidents involving my vehicle. I also observed a dark passenger car in the intersection as the [truck] was running through the red light and saw that there would be a crash.

         Deputy Coker stated that the driver of the truck, Tobias, "made no attempt to brake, because the brake lights were never activated prior to the collision." The truck driven by Tobias flipped over Yolanda's car and rolled through the intersection. Deputy Coker then proceeded into the intersection and approached the stolen truck while Deputies Gonzales and Doucet approached Yolanda's car. Deputy Coker stated that "[t]he entire pursuit took around a minute."

         Regarding his decision making, Deputy Coker stated that the HPD dispatch had identified the truck as having been "carjacked," which "typically include[s] threat of violence and may include the use of weapons." He decided to follow the truck when it left the strip mall and initiate a traffic stop "based on the driver being suspected of a violent felony offense and posing a further risk of danger to the community unless apprehended." Deputy Coker further stated that when the driver of the truck evaded his attempts to conduct a traffic stop, "[t]he suspect's hazardous driving created a danger to the public that required my intervention and which clearly outweighed the risks of a vehicle pursuit." Deputy Coker further "noted that traffic was reasonable for that time of day [which was just before noon], the conditions were clear and well-lit and the roads were dry. Traffic on Antoine was ordinary for the time of day." Deputy Coker stated that he "remained aware of changing road conditions including the stalled or stopped truck, and followed the suspect at a safe distance and speed."

         Deputy Coker averred:

In my discretion, and as a peace officer traveling to an emergency, as was the case in this instance, I can pursue a fleeing suspect. . . . Further, my emergency lights and siren were activated through the entire pursuit of the suspect vehicle. I believed that the need to respond to the emergency and apprehend the suspect outweighed the risk of not pursuing the suspect in light of the excessive speeds the suspect was traveling and his hazardous driving maneuvers.... Cars were aware of my approach and were moving out of my way as I approached.

         The accident-investigation records, including statements from other deputies and law enforcement personnel, paramedics, and witness statements, corroborated Deputy Coker's affidavit ...


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