DID THE ALLEGED FAILURE TO MAINTAIN BRAKES ON THE BUS WAIVE THE DISTRICT’S GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITY?
Case citation: Mt.Pleasant ISD v. Elliott, 2014 WL 1513291 (Tex. App. – Texarkana 2014) (unpublished).
Summary: Dona K. Elliott was a bus driver for the Mount Pleasant Independent School District when the brakes failed on the bus she was driving. Elliott’s kneecap was broken in the ensuing crash. It was undisputed that the accident was caused by brake failure, not the driver. The bus was a seventeen-year-old Thomas flat-nose school bus owned by the district, transporting students, and driven by Elliott for her employer, Durham Transportation, Inc. Durham had recently contracted with the District to operate and maintain the district bus fleet and had recently taken over from the district Elliott’s employment as a bus driver.
The record showed that, months before the accident, the district hired Durham to handle all aspects of its school bus fleet, including student transportation and fleet maintenance. The agreement provided that Durham would inspect all buses to “ensure compliance with all applicable State and … Federal statutes, ordinances, and regulations … [so the buses] will meet or exceed the Texas Minimum Safety Standards for School Buses.” The agreement became effective July 5, 2012.
Before Durham took over fleet maintenance and operations, the district had received numerous complaints related to the brakes on bus number fourteen—the bus involved in the accident. Elliott filed a negligence lawsuit against the district for the injuries she sustained in the crash. In response, the district filed a plea to the jurisdiction, challenging the trial court’s jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity. The district argued that any pre-contract brake maintenance or repairs on bus number fourteen could not waive its right to sovereign immunity. The trial court overruled the district’s plea to the jurisdiction. The issue on appeal was whether the district’s right to sovereign immunity was waived for Elliott’s personal injury lawsuit against the district and, thus, whether the court had jurisdiction over the action.
Ruling: The appeals court reversed the trial court’s denial of the district’s plea to the jurisdiction and rendered judgment in favor of the district. Governmental immunity protects school districts from lawsuits and liability for damages. Under the Tort Claims Act, a governmental unit’s sovereign immunity is waived for personal injury that arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment. The Texas Supreme Court has defined “use” as “to put or bring into action or service; to employ for or apply to a given purpose.” Courts have defined “operation” as “a doing or performing of a practical work.”
According to the trial court, the district did not operate, use, or control the bus at the time of the accident. Elliott claimed the district was negligent in failing to adequately repair and maintain the brakes on the bus. However, the evidence did not support the conclusion that the district was operating the bus when the alleged injuries occurred. Further, according to the trial court, maintenance of the brakes on the bus is not a “use” or “operation” of the bus under the Tort Claims Act. The trial court erred when it denied the district’s plea to the jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity. The appeals court rendered judgment for the district.
Comments: The fact that the bus driver was an employee of Durham, rather than the district, did not figure much in this decision. If the crash had been due to driver negligence, the employment status of the driver would have been critical. The district would have asserted its immunity based on the fact that the driver was not its employee. But here, no one asserted that the driver was negligent. The negligence involved bus maintenance, and this opinion effectively holds that such negligence does not create liability for the district. Maintenance is not “use” or “operation” of the bus. Thus even if the crash was due to faulty maintenance by district employees, the district is immune from liability. That is a surprising decision.