In the case of Gulf Coast Center v. Curry, Case No. 20-0856 (Tex. 2022), the Supreme Court of Texas found that courts may not render a judgment that exceeds the statutory damage cap under the Texas Torts Claims Act and a plaintiff seeking recovery under the Act has the burden to prove which cap applies. The plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the trial court had jurisdiction to render a judgment exceeding the minimum statutory cap. The Texas Supreme Court reduced the $216,000 judgment finding that the Act requires lower courts to cap damages when the defendant is a local government or governmental unit, even if the issue wasn't brought during trial.
The role of the Gulf Coast Center is to provide specialized services for community members with intellectual disabilities who reside in Galveston and Brazoria Counties. As part of its services, Gulf Coast offers public bus transportation to help some of its patients travel to the facility. One of the buses driven by a Gulf Coast employee struck Daniel Curry as he crossed the street. Curry sustained injuries and brought a claim against Gulf Coast for compensation.
In his suit, Curry asserted that Gulf Coast is a "governmental unit" and that the Texas Tort Claims Act (the Act) prevented Gulf Coast from claiming immunity and avoiding liability. Gulf Coast conceded that it is in fact a governmental unit, but also alleged that it was protected by governmental immunity and that any liability it may hold would be limited by the Act.
A jury ruled in favor of Curry and found that Gulf Coast was negligent. It awarded Curry $216,000. Curry was not satisfied with this verdict and demanded a judgment for the full amount of the verdict plus interest and costs. He supported his demand by arguing that the total did not exceed the $250,000 statutory cap outlined by the Act. Gulf Coast, on the other hand, filed a motion to reform the judgment and cap its liability at $100,000 in accordance with the Act's cap. The trial court denied Gulf Coast's motion and affirmed the judgment for Curry. Gulf Coast appealed claiming that the lower court's decision was not in line with the requirements of the Act.
Sovereign and Governmental Immunity
Texas has a long-standing policy of not permitting lawsuits against the State of Texas, unless the State consents to litigating the claim. Fed. Sign v. Tex. S. Univ., 951 S.W.2d 401, 405 (Tex. 1997). Sovereign immunity generally falls into two possible categories- immunity from suit, or immunity from liability. Both can also apply to a singular set of circumstances. State v. Lueck, 290 S.W.3d 876, 880 (Tex. 2009). Immunity from suit "bars an action against the State unless the State consents to the suit." Tex. Dep't of Transp. v. Jones, 8 S.W.3d 636, 638 (Tex. 1999). "Consent to suit must ordinarily be found in a constitutional provision or legislative enactment." Wichita Falls State Hosp. v. Taylor, 106 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tex. 2003). Immunity from suit can impact a court's jurisdiction to hear the case.
Immunity from liability goes even further. It protects the state from liability even in cases where the Legislature expressly allowed for suits against the government entity. Jones at 638. With immunity from liability a court's ability to hear a case based on jurisdiction is not affected. Most importantly, immunity from liability is treated as an affirmative defense and must be pleaded as such, or else waived. Tex. Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 224 (Tex. 2004).
Governmental immunity specifically protects the State and state agencies as well as the state's "political subdivision" including counties, cities, and school districts. Travis Cent. Appraisal Dist. v. Norman, 342 S.W.3d 54, 57-58 (Tex. 2011). "In a suit against a governmental unit, the plaintiff must affirmatively demonstrate the court's jurisdiction by establishing a valid waiver of immunity." Town of Shady Shores v. Swanson, 590 S.W.3d 544, 550 (Tex. 2019).
Texas Tort Claims Act
The Texas Torts Claims Act waives governmental immunity for certain tort claims. The court examined three sections of the Act in the case at hand: Sections 101.021, 101.023 and 101.025.
This section waives a governmental unit's immunity from liability for certain types of claims such as:
- "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 claimant according to Texas law…."TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE §101.021.
For claims where liability is waived under Section 101.021, Section 101.023 limits the amount of the government's liability. The applicable cap depends on the type of governmental unit.
- Liability of the state government under this chapter is limited to a maximum amount of $250,000 for each person for bodily injury or death.
- A unit of local government is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $100,000 for each person for bodily injury or death.
- Liability of a municipality under this chapter is limited to money damages in the maximum amount of $250,000 for each person for bodily injury or death.
- Liability of an emergency service organization is limited to money damages in a maximum amount of $100,000 for each person for bodily injury or death.
- Sovereign immunity to a suit is waived and abolished to the extent of liability created by this chapter.
- A person having a claim under this chapter may sue a governmental unit for damages allowed by this chapter.
- Expressly limits the extent of its waiver of immunity from suit- it is not a wholesale waiver- but a waiver that extends only as far as the Act elsewhere waives immunity from liability.
- Because the extent of Section 101.025's waiver of immunity from suit is determined by the Act's limits on liability, we have described the Tort Claims Act as a unique statutory scheme in which the two immunities are co-extensive." Sampson v Univ. of Tex. 500 S.W. 3d 380, 384 (Tex. 2016).
What is the Appropriate Cap on Gulf Coast's Liability?
Gulf Coast argues that its maximum liability under the Act should not exceed $100,000. It further asserts that this determination is a matter of law because the damage caps in Section 101.023 also limit the trial court's jurisdiction. Further, it claims that Curry failed to establish which damage cap should apply under the statute and thereby also neglected to demonstrate the court's jurisdiction or lack thereof. Curry had the burden to establish which damage cap applies and he provided no evidence that a higher cap was permitted pursuant to the statute.
Gulf Coast supplied evidence that it operates as a community center pursuant to the Chapter 534 Health and Safety Code and should therefore be subject to the $100,000 cap pursuant to Section 101.023(b) of the Act. Section 534.001 states that a community center is an agency of the state, a governmental unit, and a unit of local government, as defined and specified by the Torts Claims Act. Id. §534.001(c)(1). This uncontroverted evidence in the record established that Gulf Coast is a community center under Chapter 534 of the Health and Safety Code and therefore, a unit of local government subject to Section 101.023(b)'s $100,000 cap. Thus, if the evidence establishes that Gulf Coast is a community center under Health and Safety Code, then it is also a unit of local government and the $100,000 cap will apply as a matter of law. City of Garland v. Dall. Morning News, 22 S.W.3d 351, 357 (Tex. 2000). Curry does not dispute that Gulf Coast was formed as a community center to assist community members with mental health.
Despite this evidence, the court of appeals disagreed with Gulf Coast's assessment and determined that damages under Section 101.023 are an affirmative defense. From that standpoint, Gulf Coast had the burden of proof to show that the lower cap was applicable in this case. The court of appeals also found that Gulf Coast did not successfully establish that it qualifies as a unit of local government under the statute. For these reasons, the appeals court found that the trial court ruling should stand as it awarded damages exceeding the $100,000 cap, but below the $250,000 cap.
The Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with both the trial court and court of appeal decisions. It concluded that the limitations of liability propounded in Section 101.023 were not an affirmative defense, but rather "implicate the trial court's jurisdiction by virtue of their incorporation in Section 101.025's waiver of immunity from suit." The appropriate question for the court was "whether and to what extent the Tort Claims Act waives immunity from suit." Texas Dep't, Parks Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217 at 226-227 (Tex. 2004). Section 101.025(b) makes clear that a person with an actionable claim that otherwise satisfies the Act may file a suit for damages. The Act's waiver of immunity from suit is, however, limited to the extent recoverable damages exist under the applicable cap for the type of governmental entity at issue.
On the opposite side, Curry argues that the limits of liability in Section 101.023 do not impact the trial court's jurisdiction because they do not involve a governmental unit's immunity form suit. His assertion relies mainly on one statement in Fort Worth Transportation Authority v. Rodriguez, 547 S.W.3d 830 (Tex. 2018). In that case, the Court stated that Section 101.023 limits only the liability of a governmental unit- it does not shield it from a lawsuit. Curry understands this statement to mean that the damage caps relate solely to immunity from liability and not immunity from suit. Under his theory the damages caps act as an affirmative defense that must be pleaded and proven by the defendant. The high court again disagreed.
The Rodriguez case concerned the extent of an independent contractor's liability under the Transportation Code. It did not address the interrelation between the damage caps in Section 101.023 and the Act's waiver of immunity from suit in Section 101.025. Curry fails to note that although Section 101.023 limits the governmental unit's liability, it does not shield them from being sued. Section 101.025 waives immunity from suit and specifically defines the extent of that waiver by reference to Section 101.023's express limits of liability. The text of Section 101.025 does not go as far as Curry claims, but instead establishes that a governmental unit retains its immunity from suit as to a claim that exceeds the liability limits in Section 101.023. The court concluded that the Tort Claims Act incorporates the damages cap in Section 101.023in its waiver of immunity from suit in Section 101.025.
Which Party Has the Burden of Establishing What Damage Caps Apply?
The court found that because damage caps implicate jurisdiction, the plaintiff has the burden of proving which damage caps apply under the Act. Although Curry argues that the $250,000 damage cap should apply to this case, he failed to meet his burden of showing that this was the appropriate application of the Act in the current case. Neither party disputes that Curry presented a valid personal injury claim, but the amount he can collect is certainly at issue.
Under Section 101.023, a governmental unit's liability for personal injury claims is limited to either $100,000 per person (if the defendant is a unit of local government or an emergency service organization) or $250,000 per person (if the defendant is the state government or municipality). TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE §101.023. Although the court of appeals found that the $250,000 cap applied, Curry did not plead or present evidence that his claim was subject to the higher damages cap under Section 101.023. Thus, there is no evidence in the record that Gulf Coast acted as the state government under Section 101.023(a) or a municipality under Section 101.023(c). Therefore, he failed to show that Gulf Coast's immunity from suit was waived beyond the $100,000 cap. Further, the court of appeals was incorrect in its determination that an issue involving a Section 101.023 cap was a question that should be submitted to the jury. Instead, this should be determined by the trial court. Since there was no evidence to support a higher cap, the trial court was barred by the Act from granting a judgment in excess of the $100,000 cap.
The Tort Claims Act waives a governmental unit's immunity from suit only to the extent the Act waives its immunity from liability. Courts lack jurisdiction to approve a judgment in excess of applicable damage caps under Section 101.023 and a plaintiff seeking recovery under the Torts Claims Act has the burden to prove which cap applies.
The decisions of the trial court and court of appeals were reversed and remanded with instructions to recalculate the judgment in compliance with the $100,000 cap in Section 101.023(b).