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Tort claims


Case citation: Pierce v. Hearne ISD, __ Fed. Appx. __, 2015 WL 81995 (5th Cir. 2015) (unpublished).

Summary: Samuel and Plezzette Pierce brought personal injury and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 constitutional claims against Hearne Independent School District and others after their son was killed while driving his teacher’s all-terrain vehicle (ATV). At the time, De’Jon Pierce was a junior at Hearne High School. De’Jon’s death occurred in March 2012 when he lost control of an ATV owned by Darrell Trojacek, his “Ag Mechanics” teacher, and crashed into a tree. Trojacek, with the permission of Principal Anthony McGill, regularly withdrew De’Jon and other students from school to work on his farm as part of their coursework. He allowed the students to drive his ATV on these occasions.

On the day of the accident, Trojacek withdrew De’Jon and other students from school to clean pigs at his farm. After cleaning the pigs, Trojacek instructed De’Jon and another student to deliver a tool to his father’s ranch, which was approximately one mile away. De’Jon made this trip without incident. On the return trip, however, he lost control of the ATV and struck a tree. While the passenger survived, De’Jon died of blunt force trauma.

De’Jon’s parents filed tort claims against Hearne ISD under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA), 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against Hearne ISD, Principal McGill, and Trojacek; and state-law claims against Trojacek’s father. The district court dismissed the tort claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction on the basis of sovereign immunity, dismissed the Section 1983 claims for failure to state a claim, declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims, and denied the parents’ request to amend the lawsuit. The Pierces timely appealed the trial court’s ruling.

Ruling: The Eleventh Amendment strips federal courts of jurisdiction over claims against a state that has not consented to suit. In Texas, school districts are treated as “governmental units” and immunized from tort liability under the TTCA unless the claim relates to “property damage, personal injury, or death aris[ing] from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle….” The Supreme Court of Texas has interpreted this statute as requiring that the “operation or use [be] that of the [school] employee.” In this case, De’Jon was driving the ATV at the time of his accident. Nevertheless, the Pierces argued that they were entitled to recover because Trojacek, a school employee, ordered De’Jon to drive the ATV.

The appeals court disagreed because the Texas Supreme Court has held that the motor-vehicle exception to sovereign immunity does not apply to situations in which a government employee was not operating the vehicle that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The Texas Supreme Court is the final authority regarding the meaning of Texas statutes, and the Fifth Circuit was bound by its interpretation in this case. The parents cited a limited exception to this, in which a government employee, while not operating the vehicle that injured the plaintiff, exercised complete control over the plaintiff’s movements at the time of the accident. This was not the case here. In this case, Trojacek instructed De’Jon to drive his ATV to his father’s farm and back, but he was not present at the time of the accident and did not exercise control over De’Jon’s movements during the trip. Accordingly, the narrow exception cited by the parents was inapplicable and Hearne ISD was immune from tort liability under the Texas Tort Claims Act.

The appeals court next considered the parents’ Section 1983 claims, in which they had to (1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. The Pierces claimed that the district, Principal McGill, and Trojacek violated De’Jon’s substantive due process rights, namely his right to bodily integrity. A due process violation results from deliberate indifference of a person’s “life, liberty, or property.”

The Pierces alleged that Trojacek removed De’Jon from school without their permission, instructed him to ride double on an ATV despite the fact that he did not have a driver’s license, did not properly instruct him on how to operate the ATV, and did not provide him with any safety gear. They also alleged that the ATV was improperly maintained. According to the court of appeals, these allegations do not suffice to show deliberate indifference. Trojacek may have been negligent by removing De’Jon from school and instructing him to drive his ATV, but his actions do not reveal a complete disregard for human life and an indifference to a significant risk of death. Nor does our case law support such a conclusion. Trojacek did not deliberately abuse, restrain, threaten, or touch De’Jon. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that Trojacek intended to harm De’Jon at all or even that he foresaw harm and willfully disregarded it. Thus, Trojacek did not act with deliberate indifference.

The Pierces based their Section 1983 claim against Principal McGill on a theory of supervisory liability. Under this theory, “the plaintiff must show that: (1) the supervisor either failed to supervise or train the subordinate official; (2) a causal link exists between the failure to train or supervise and the violation of the plaintiff’s rights; and (3) the failure to train or supervise amounts to deliberate indifference.” Deliberate indifference in this context ordinarily requires a “pattern of similar constitutional violations by untrained employees….” The Pierces claimed that Principal McGill acted with deliberate indifference when he permitted Trojacek to take students to work on his farm without their parents’ permission. The court of appeals concluded, however, that Principal McGill’s actions constituted, at most, negligence. Moreover, the Pierces did not demonstrate that a pattern of constitutional injuries resulted from Principal McGill’s actions. Therefore, Principal McGill did not act with deliberate indifference. Additionally, both Trojacek and Principal McGill were entitled to qualified immunity because they did not violate a clearly established constitutional right.

With respect to the school district, the parents asserted a traditional municipal liability theory supporting their claim in both their complaint and their response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Recovery under this theory requires proof of (1) a policymaker; (2) an official policy; and (3) a violation of constitutional rights whose “moving force” is the policy or custom. According to the court of appeals, the parents’ suit did not articulate this theory as a basis for their Section 1983 claim against the district. The suit did not make claims about policymakers, policies or customs, or their relationship to the alleged constitutional violation. The suit, therefore, failed to state a viable Section 1983 claim against the district under a municipal theory of liability. The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of the parents’ claims.

Comments: Though this case is tragic, the individuals did not act with deliberate indifference toward the student. Negligence in this context will not result in liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.