Friday, June 27, 2008

TTCA | City of Austin v. Leggett (Tex.App.- Austin 2008)

Drowning Death Suit against City dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds

City of Austin, Texas v. Trudy Leggett, Individually and as Heir of Nathan Leggett, Deceased, No. 03-07-00345-CV (Tex.App.- Austin, June 12, 2008)(Opinion by Justice Pemberton [ PDF ] )(flooding death, TTCA) (Before Justices Patterson, Puryear and Pemberton)
Appeal from 261st District Court of Travis County


At approximately 6 p.m. on November 15, 2001, seventeen year-old Nathan Leggett tragically drowned after attempting to drive through a flooded street in southwest Austin. That afternoon, it was undisputed that the Austin area had been hit by thunderstorms with intense rainfall, hail, tornados and widespread flooding. Nathan's mother, Trudy Leggett, individually and as Nathan's heir, sued the City of Austin for damages under the survival statute and wrongful death act. She alleged that the City's negligent maintenance or design of a stormwater detention pond, located north of the intersection where Nathan drowned, had caused debris to clog a grate covering the pond's designed drainage outlet, resulting in storm waters backing up and ultimately overflowing the pond, flooding the adjacent residential area and causing Nathan's death. (1)

Leggett's suit implicates the City's governmental immunity, the long-established common-law doctrine that categorically bars suits for money damages against municipalities unless the legislature has consented to suit. See, e.g., City of Galveston v. State, 217 S.W.3d 466, 469 (Tex. 2007); Tooke v. City of Mexia, 197 S.W.3d 325, 332 (Tex. 2006); Reata Constr. Corp. v. City of Dallas, 197 S.W.3d 371, 374 (Tex. 2006). (2) Leggett purports to assert claims within the legislative waivers of immunity under the tort claims act for damages claims based on theories of premises defects and "special defects." See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.022(a)-(b) (West Supp. 2007).

Asserting that its immunity against Leggett's claims had not been waived, the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court denied the plea, specifically finding "as a matter of law that the condition was a special defect." The City appeals this order. See id. § 51.014(a)(8) (West Supp. 2007). (3)

Concluding that Leggett's suit does not fall within the tort claims act's waivers of immunity, we must reverse and render judgment dismissing the suit for want of subject-matter jurisdiction.



I concur in the judgment and agree with the majority's conclusion that the dispositive issue is whether the City of Austin had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition--flooding in the intersection--at the time of the accident.

The supreme court in City of Corsicana v. Stewart, No. 07-0058, 249 S.W.3d 412, 2008 Tex. LEXIS 218 (Tex. Mar. 28, 2008) (per curiam), decided a similar premise defect case that is dispositive of this appeal.

The supreme court directly addressed the element of a governmental unit's actual knowledge of a dangerous condition to establish waiver under the Texas Tort Claims Act. Id. at *1. In the context of an accident that occurred at a flooded low-water crossing, the claimants presented evidence that the City of Corsicana knew the low-water crossing tended to flood during heavy rainfall and that there had been heavy rainfall at the time of the accident. Id. at *3-4. Despite the City of Corsicana's knowledge of prior flooding at the low-water crossing and heavy rainfall at the time of the accident, the supreme court dismissed the claimants' action for lack of jurisdiction, holding that the claimants failed to raise a fact issue regarding the City of Corsicana's "actual knowledge that a dangerous condition existed at or near the crossing at the time of the accident." Id. at *7-8 ("As the Legislature created an actual, not constructive, knowledge standard for waiver of immunity, we conclude that Plaintiffs failed to raise a fact issue regarding the City's knowledge of a dangerous condition.").

There was no direct evidence that the City of Corsicana knew that the low-water crossing was flooded at or near the time of the accident. Id. at *5.

Similarly, there was no evidence that the City of Austin had actual knowledge that the intersection where the accident occurred was flooded at or near the time of the accident and, more compelling than the facts in City of Corsicana, it was undisputed that the City of Austin did not have knowledge of this intersection having ever flooded on prior occasions--or even of the detention pond flooding or overflowing. Leggett affirmatively asserted this fact in her pleadings: "The location of the drowning of Nathan is not known to have flooded before."

Based on the legal analysis set forth in City of Corsicana that a governmental entity must have "actual knowledge of a dangerous condition" to establish waiver of immunity, see id. at *7-8, I concur in the majority's judgment dismissing Leggett's suit for want of subject-matter jurisdiction.
Jan P. Patterson, Justice
Before Justices Patterson, Puryear and Pemberton
Filed: June 12, 2008

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