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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Appellate court rules Texas Department of Criminal Justice can't claim immunity in inmate's suit


By Elizabeth Alt | Jul 16, 2018

General court 09

HOUSTON – The Texas 1st District Court of Appeals upheld a trial court's ruling denying the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s plea for personal jurisdiction in an inmate’s suit alleging negligence and excessive force against a prison guard and the TDCJ.

The TDCJ’s plea for personal jurisdiction, claiming sovereign immunity, was denied in the trial court after an inmate sued for injuries sustained after a prison guard used a tear gas gun to break up inmates who refused to go to their cells.

“We hold that the trial court correctly concluded that TDCJ 'used' the gun and skat shell for purposes of the waiver of sovereign immunity,” the June 28 ruling states.

Chief Justice Sherry Radack wrote the court opinion with Justices Terry Jennings and Russell Lloyd.

According to the ruling, in May 2015 Lt. Cody Waller, a TDCJ prison guard at the Lychner State Jail, used tear gas when two groups of inmates refused to go to their cells for the night, threatening to fight. After four verbal commands, Waller fired the gas canister into the group of inmates refusing to comply. Cesar Rangel was hit with the “skat shell” and suffered burns and a fracture. 

TDCJ determined that Waller had accidentally loaded the “skat shell” when loading the gun “rather than the shorter muzzle blast shell,” the ruling states. TDCJ stated that “chemical agents were necessary to prevent a major disturbance and imminent bodily harm to staff and offenders,” the ruling states.

Rangel sued both Waller and the TDJC. In his second amended complaint, Rangel alleges claims of excessive force against Waller, the sergeant and warden on duty, and alleges that TDJC is liable for negligently giving Waller an outdoor-only shell for use indoors, not labeling the shells properly “because the writing on it was smeared and faded” and authorizing the use of a tear gas gun “without questioning Waller’s choice of chemical-agent munition.”

The TDJC filed a plea to the jurisdiction, stating it has sovereign immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) because Rangel’s claims were intentional tort. The trial court denied the motion and TDJC appealed.

On appeal, TDJC argued that “providing the ammunition and gun to the prison guard and authorizing the use of the gun over the telephone was not a 'use' of tangible personal property.” 

Radack held that the trial court correctly found that the institution provided tangible personal property that caused an injury when used, and thus “waives sovereign immunity.”

Radack stated that Rangel’s “alleged negligent act pleaded is distinct from the intentional tort pleaded,” dismissing TDCJ's argument that Rangel was attempting to “artfully plead around the TTCA by alleging negligence.”

Radack noted the jurisdictional fact dispute regarding whether the situation was an emergency or riot for the purposes of the exceptions to the TTCA, pointing out that “TDCJ’s self-serving conclusion that an emergency or riot existed is not conclusive.”

“We do not necessarily agree that immunity should always follow regardless of the negligence shown… the trial court did not err in denying TDCJ’s plea to the jurisdiction,” the ruling states.

The Court of Appeals for the 1st District of Texas case number 01-17-00956-CV

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