Many people are surprised to learn that there are limitations on their right to sue governmental entities for personal injuries. This is what is known as sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity originated under English law and has been adopted by the federal and state governments of this country. However, in certain circumstances people in Texas who have been injured by the negligent acts of a governmental unit or a governmental employee have the right to suit for their personal injuries. This exception to sovereign immunity is contained in Chapter 101 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code and is known as the Texas Tort Claims Act.
A “governmental unit” means the state of Texas and all the several agencies of government that collectively constitute the government of the state, including other agencies bearing different designations, and all departments, bureaus, boards, commissions, offices, agencies, councils, courts and the political subdivisions of the state, including any city, county, school district, water control and improvement district, soil conservation district, communication district, public health district, river authority, emergency service organization and any other institution, agency, or organ of government the status and authority of which are derived from the Constitution of Texas or from laws passed by the legislature under the constitution.
Under the Texas Tort Claims Act a governmental unit is ONLY liable for:
- Property damage, personal injury, and death proximately caused by the wrongful act or omission or the negligence of an employee acting within his scope of employment if the property damage, personal injury, or death arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment and the employee would be personally liable to the injured person according to Texas law; and
- Personal injury or death that is caused by a condition or the use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the injured person according to Texas law.
There is a further exception for municipalities. A municipality can be held liable for personal injuries arising from its governmental functions, which are those functions that are enjoined on a municipality by law and are given it by the state as part of the state’s sovereignty, to be exercised by the municipality in the interest of the general public, including but not limited to: police and fire protection and control; street and bridge construction and maintenance; establishment and maintenance of jails; hospitals; operation of emergency ambulance service; recreational facilities, including but not limited to swimming pools, beaches, and marinas; and maintenance of traffic signals, signs, and hazards.
However, the Texas Tort Claims Act does not apply to the liability of a municipality for damages arising from its proprietary functions, which are those functions that a municipality may, in its discretion, perform in the interest of the inhabitants of the municipality, including but not limited to: the operation and maintenance of a public utility; amusements owned and operated by the municipality and any activity that is abnormally dangerous or ultrahazardous.
There is also a specific exception for premises defects. If a personal injury or death claim arises from a premise defect, the governmental unit only owes the same duty that a private person would owe to a licensee (i.e. social guest) on private property, unless the injured person pays for the use of the premises. This limitation of duty does not apply to the governmental unit’s duty to warn of special defects such as excavations or obstructions on highways, roads, or streets or to the duty to warn of the absence, condition, or malfunction of traffic signs, signals, or warning devices. Furthermore, governmental units are not liable for property damage in premises defect claims.