If you are injured by the actions of a government employee, by the actions of a government agency, or by government property – you should speak with an experienced attorney about your legal rights to compensation. People are often wary of pursuing claims against the government due to the bureaucratic nature of our governmental systems, or the belief that the “miles of red tape” will prevent them from getting any meaningful results. If you are injured, you should at very least speak with an attorney to get an understanding of your rights.
Government agencies are entitled to “sovereign immunity,” which can protect the government from liability for its own negligent actions that cause injuries to its citizens. However, this right to immunity and the protections it affords are not absolute. While the law surrounding these types of cases can be tricky, and a minefield for the average person, our experienced trial lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard can consult with you to determine your options and avenues of recovery when injured by the government. You will learn from reading this article that the most important thing to consider if you are injured is to act quickly.
Types of Claims Under the Texas Tort Claims Act – How the Law Affects You
The Texas Tort Claims Act applies to claims that arise from injuries caused by the state government and city/municipal or local governments. The Texas Constitution provides immunity to the government as a matter of course. So, in order to bring a suit against the government, the government must clearly and unambiguously waive its right to immunity. The Texas Tort Claims Act is a statutory waiver of immunity, meaning that if certain conditions apply to your claim or case, the law prohibits the government from claiming immunity.
This statutory waiver applies, and a governmental unit in the state is liable for three main categories of claims:
- Injuries that result from the use of motor-driven vehicles/equipment;
- Injuries that result from the condition or use of tangible property; and
- Injuries that result from the condition or use of real property
First, to bring a claim for injuries that result from the use of motor-driven vehicles/equipment, the government must waive immunity and permit claims when:
- Injuries or death, are:
- Proximately caused by the wrongful acts or omissions or negligence of an employee; AND
- While the employee is acting within the scope of his/her employment
- The injuries or death arise from:
- The operation or use of a motor driven vehicle, OR
- Motor driven equipment
- The employee would be personally liable to the claimant according to Texas law
If all the above criteria are met, a citizen can bring a claim against the Texas State Government or any Texas city or municipal government. Looking at criteria numbers 3 and 4 above, it is important to understand that you must be able to prove negligence against the party that injured you to bring a valid claim. Important things we can glean from the above rule are:
- If government property (like a vehicle or motor-driven equipment) is involved in causing your injury, it does not automatically grant you the right to sue under the Texas Tort Claims Act. You must prove that the government employee was negligent and would be liable had you sued them individually.
- If you are injured by a government employee, you can only sue under the Texas Tort Claims Act if that employee was “on the job,” or acting within the scope of his/her employment.
- If you are injured by the actions of a government employee that is “on the job,” you can only bring a valid claim under the Texas Tort Claims Act if the injury was caused by a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment.
The most common examples of claims brought under this rule are car accidents, but the rule can also apply to injuries caused by other types of vehicles, construction equipment, or other similar circumstances.
Condition or use of tangible property
Second, to bring a claim for injuries that result from the condition or use of tangible property, the government must waive immunity and permit claims when:
- The government employee was acting in the scope of employment;
- The government employee was negligent while either
- Using or misusing tangible property, OR
- Furnished the injured person with inadequate or defective tangible property;
- The government employee’s actions proximately caused the person’s injuries;
- The government unit (employer) would have been personally liable under Texas law
These types of claims apply when someone is injured by government equipment being misused or when the government provides an individual with defective property. Again, it is important to note that the injury must have occurred while the employee was “on the job,” and due to the employee’s actions or negligence.
Condition or use of real property
Third, to bring a claim for injuries that result from the condition or use of real property, the government must waive immunity and permit claims when the injury results from a premises defect. To prove one of these claims, an individual must prove the same type of case as would generally be permitted under premises liability law.
Generally, a premises liability claim in Texas requires the injured party to prove four elements:
- The property owner/controller had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition causing an injury;
- The condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm;
- The property owner/controller failed to take reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk; and
- The risk was the proximate cause of injuries to the injured party
However, under the Texas Tort Claims Act, an injured person’s rights are slightly narrower than they would be if the person had been injured while inside of a general business premises such as a store, restaurant, hotel, office, etc.
Specifically, if the government is a landowner or premises owner and a citizen is injured by a defect on the land/premises, the government owes the same duties to the injured party as would a private landowner to a licensee. A licensee is a person who enters a premises with the owner/controller’s express or implied permission, but only for the licensee’s convenience or on business for someone other than the owner/controller.
Because a person injured on government property is considered a licensee, you should be aware that:
- As a licensee, you must prove that the owner/controller of a premises had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition that injured you. Legally, it is not enough to show that the owner/controller should have known about the condition. Therefore, the case may be more difficult to make.
- As a licensee, the owner/controller of a premises does not owe you a duty to inspect the premises. Therefore, you cannot argue that a reasonable inspection would have discovered the defect.
- Alternatively, if you can show that the condition was known about by the government (by someone reporting it or otherwise), the government does owe you a duty of ordinary care to fix or make safe any dangerous conditions, or give adequate warning of the danger to you or other guests.
- As a licensee, if you are injured by a dangerous condition that you knew about or foresaw, you cannot recover damages for your injuries.
Examples of dangerous conditions that cause injuries and may apply under this rule include:
- Defective fixtures like staircases, doors, or safety railings/barriers
- Wet or oily surfaces
- Unsecured rugs, carpets, or broken flooring
- Loose, hanging items
- Exposed sharp edges hidden to the general eye
- Tools or equipment lying around
A Major Exception to the Rule: OFFICIAL IMMUNITY
Official Immunity is a defense that protects government officers from personal liability in performing discretionary duties in good faith, so long as it is within the scope of their authority. So, if you bring a claim against the government for injuries or death and attempt to prove negligence, the government does not have to waive its immunity if:
- A governmental employee is entitled to official immunity for the performance of discretionary duties;
- The performance of duties is within the scope of the employee’s authority; AND
- The employee acted in good faith
This exception often applies to government employees like police officers. The law acknowledges the fact that the risk of a police officer making an honest mistake is preferable to a police officer failing to act at all. The law attempts to protect dangerous work like this because the government does not want to deter qualified people from taking on these duties by threatening liability for honest mistakes.
For example, to bring a claim against a police officer for injuries sustained in a motor-vehicle accident, you have to prove not only that the officer was negligent, but also that he/she acted in bad faith. This means you must prove that the officer’s motivation was flawed, rather than the officer’s actions. You must prove that a reasonably prudent official, under the same or similar circumstances, could not have believed that his/her conduct was justified based on the information possessed at the time of the actions taken. This is a much higher standard than proving general negligence.
Important Considerations – Texas Caps on Damages an Injured Party Can Recover
The Texas Tort Claims Act limits, or places caps, on the amount of monetary damages an injured person can receive when the government is liable for his/her injuries.
Generally, the liability of a unit of local government for a claim under the Act is limited to:
- Maximum of $100,000 per person, and
- Total maximum of $300,000 per occurrence
The liability of a municipality for a claim under the Act is limited to:
- Maximum of $250,000 per person, and
- Total maximum of $500,000 per occurrence.
Exemplary or punitive damages are not available for claims brought under the Act.
What Should I Do if I am Injured by the Government or its Employees?
First, you should talk to an experienced lawyer immediately. The Texas Tort Claims Act requires that you first submit a notice of intent to file a claim. You must send this notice no later than 6 months after the date of the injury/accident. In some cities, this notice period is even shorter. The City of Houston, for example, has a 90-day time limit. The City of Austin enforces a 45-day time limit. This means that you will need to act quickly and speak with a lawyer to determine the applicable time limits within your locale.
Our top-rated trial lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard are experienced in dealing with work injury cases all over the State of Texas.
If you or a loved one were seriously injured or tragically killed in a workplace accident as a result of the negligence of a government employee, a government agency, or government property, contact our work injury lawyer for a free, confidential consultation.