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July 2015

Appeals Affirmed in Two Separate Cases Successfully Defended by Houston Team

Houston senior counsel Steve Selbe, senior counsel Heidi Gumienny and associate Andrew Scott recently obtained affirmances of appeals in the First and Fourteenth District Courts of Appeals in Houston on behalf of the City of Baytown in two separate personal injury cases. In these cases, both of which arose out of police pursuits, the trial court ruled in favor of the City on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims of negligence were barred by governmental and official immunity.

The first case, Williams v. Baytown, arose from a collision where two shoplifters crashed into a car stopped at a red light.  On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that governmental immunity was waived under the Tort Claims Act because (1) the police officers negligently operated their vehicles in their foiled attempt to “box-in” the suspects’ truck prior to the police pursuit, which maneuver proximately caused the accident; and (2) one officer’s negligent deployment of a spike strip caused plaintiffs injuries.  Plaintiffs also argued that the officers failed to act in good faith during the police pursuit.  The City responded that governmental immunity barred the negligence claims because the alleged negligent conduct of the police officers did not fall within the Act’s limited waiver of immunity, as the responding officers were not involved in the collision and thus, no operation of a city vehicle caused the plaintiffs injuries.  The City further argued that there was no waiver of immunity based on the use of tangible personal property because the plaintiffs failed to adduce any evidence showing that the deployment of a spike strip caused or contributed to plaintiffs’ injuries. The City also argued that the emergency exception of the Act was applicable and the officers conduct was not reckless, that the officers exercised good faith during the pursuit, thereby establishing official immunity as a matter of law.

Affirming the trial court’s ruling in favor of the City, the First Court of Appeals held that the officers vehicles did not actually cause the plaintiffs’ injuries.  Further, the court held that there was no evidence of a causal nexus between the spike strip deployment and the plaintiffs’ injuries.  Because the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to establish any waiver of governmental immunity under the Tort Claims Act, it opted not to address if the emergency exception applied or whether the City officials exercised good faith during the pursuit. 

The second case, Jackson v. Baytown, also involved a collision which occured during a police pursuit.  The City successfully argued that sovereign immunity and official immunity barred the plaintiffs’ negligence claim.  On appeal, the plaintiffs presented two issues: (1) whether the City conclusively established that its officer was protected by official immunity due to good faith, and (2) whether sovereign immunity barred the plaintiffs’ claims. 

Affirming judgment for the City, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals found that the City conclusively established that its officer acted in good faith during the police pursuit by assessing both the need to respond and the risks of the pursuit in both initiating and maintaining the pursuit.  The court held that because the City’s officer was protected from liability based on official immunity, the City was protected from liability based on sovereign immunity.

Both cases involved extensive local media attention when the accidents occurred and then again when the lawsuits were filed. Defending both cases at the district court level and then having those favorable rulings confirmed on appeal resulted in state wide coverage of the successful role Gordon & Rees played in the favorable result for the City.

 

 

Heidi Gumienny
Andrew M. Scott
Steven D. Selbe



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