Feb 20, 2019 Last Updated 3:19 PM, Oct 3, 2017

Does Texas County have Immunity for Deputy's Crash?


Sheriff's Deputy's Speeding Patrol Car Hits Parked Car

The Court of Appeals of Texas (First District, Houston) was asked to decide whether a sheriff's deputy was immune from liability under the Texas Tort Claims Act after he hit a parked car while responding to an emergency in his official vehicle. The lawsuit was brought against Harris County, Texas, by the car owner's insurance company, Southern County Mutual Insurance Company ("Southern").

Insurance Company Pays Claim and Sues Harris County

Southern alleged that on August 18, 2010, Harris County Sheriff's Office ("HCSO") Deputy C. Hudson was driving his patrol car and collided with a parked car owned by Julieta Franeschi, Southern's insured. Franeschi's car was totaled, and Southern paid her claim. Southern sued Harris County to recover what it had paid Ms. Franeschi and asked the trial court to find that the deputy and the County, as his employer, had waived governmental immunity.

Conscious Indifference

The basis was that, at the time of the collision, he was acting within the course and scope of his employment and engaged in conduct that posed an extreme degree of risk to the property of others, while acting with "conscious indifference to," or "reckless disregard for," the "rights, safety and welfare of others, such as [Franeschi]."

Harris County filed a summary-judgment motion, asking the trial court to find that it was entitled to governmental immunity because Deputy Hudson had official immunity at the time of the collision, acting in good faith while responding to a life-threatening situation.The trial court denied the motion, and the County appealed.

Explanation of Events

Deputy Hudson testified by affidavit and deposition that he had been dispatched to an attempted suicide in progress. He had activated the emergency lights and siren on his patrol car and driven on Magnolia Point Drive at an estimated 80 to 90 miles per hour.

After about a "mile or two," Hudson hit a "bump" or "hump" in the road, lost control of his car, and hit a mailbox, a chain-link fence, and then Franeschi's parked car. Southern argued that Deputy Hudson was not acting in good faith because his speed of 80 miles per hour exceeded the posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour. In addition, after the HCSO accident investigation, Hudson was found to be at fault and was reprimanded and suspended from duty.

The Texas Supreme Court in University of Houston v. Clark, 38 S.W. 3d 578, 580 (Tex. 2000), explained that the officer's assessment of the risk of his chosen course of action involves such factors as time of day, traffic, and weather and road conditions. Hudson testified that the need to provide aid to the attempted suicide justified his choice of how to proceed to the scene and outweighed any clear risk of harm to the public.

The officer's supervisor testified that at the scene of an attempted suicide, the deputy might have been needed to arrive as swiftly as possible to perform CPR or first aid and to secure the premises. The supervisor also noted that the collision occurred in the daytime in a rural area, while Hudson had his emergency lights and siren activated to warn other drivers.

The Court of Appeals Concludes…

The Court of Appeals concluded that the County's uncontroverted evidence conclusively established that a reasonable police officer, acting under the same or similar circumstances as Deputy Hudson, would have believed his decision to drive his patrol car at 80 miles per hour to a suicide in progress was justified. The Court of Appeals held that, since the County established Deputy Hudson's good faith as a matter of law, the burden then shifted to Southern to raise a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to prove that no reasonable officer in Hudson's position could have thought that the situation justified his actions.

Southern relied in part on the fact that the suicidal person had been "cut down." To the contrary, Hudson testified that he had responded to a "suicide in progress." The Chambers good-faith test is "based on the officer's perception of the facts at the time of the event." City of Lancaster v. Chambers, 883 S.W.2d 650, 656 (Tex. 1994).

Southern also relied on Deputy Hudson's reprimand and one-day suspension for the collision as evidence of his actions being "grossly negligent and/or reckless." However, an officer's good faith is not rebutted by evidence that he violated the law or department policy by taking the chosen action. The Court of Appeals found that Southern failed to meet its burden to show that no reasonable officer in Deputy Hudson's position could have thought that the facts justified his actions.

The Court of Appeals held that the County had proved, and the insurance company had failed to disprove, that Deputy Hudson acted in good faith at the time of the collision. The Court of Appeals overruled and reversed the trial court's denial of Harris County's summary judgment motion that it had governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act.

Contacting an Experienced Lawyer

If you have been injured due to the negligence of someone else, even a law enforcement officer, you need an attorney familiar with all aspects of vehicle accidents. To obtain the services of an experienced attorney, contact the law firm of Godsey Martin today.

Call today at 877-GOTHIT or submit a form online. Our talented and attentive legal team will discuss your option, at no cost or obligation to you. The attorneys at Godsey Martin will deliver you the justice you’re entitled to!

Ryan Rogers

"I was inspired by my father who has practiced as attorney for over 40 years. The more I learned about the practice of law, the more I enjoyed it."

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