City of Lancaster v. Chambers, D-3331

Citation883 S.W.2d 650
Decision Date15 June 1994
Docket NumberNo. D-3331,D-3331
PartiesThe CITY OF LANCASTER, Lancaster Police Officers Everett Powell and Jimmy Miller, and the City of DeSoto and DeSoto Police Officers William H. Ransom and C.P. Bentley, Petitioners, v. Ken CHAMBERS and Evelyn Chambers, Individually and as next friends of Bradley Chambers, Respondents.
CourtSupreme Court of Texas

Eric W. Pinker, Robert G. Hogue, Randall R. Kucera, R. Wayne Gordon, Dallas, for petitioners.

Thomas J. Stutz, David R. Weiner, Dallas, for respondents.

CORNYN, Justice, delivered the opinion of the Court, in which PHILLIPS, C.J., and GONZALEZ, HIGHTOWER, HECHT, and GAMMAGE, Justices, and Justice ENOCH join.

Ken and Evelyn Chambers, individually and as next friends of their son, Bradley Chambers (collectively "Chambers"), sued the City of Lancaster, Lancaster police officers Everett Powell and Jimmy Miller, the City of DeSoto, and DeSoto police officers William H. Ransom and C.P. Bentley, for common law negligence and deprivation of rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in connection with a high-speed police chase in which Bradley Chambers was seriously injured. Because the doctrine of official immunity, invoked by the police officers as an affirmative defense, continues to be an important and unsettled issue in our jurisprudence, we granted the cities' and the officers' application for writ of error. We granted Chambers' application for writ of error concerning his rights under section 1983 because it also raises important, potentially dispositive issues.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 3, 1986, Bradley Chambers was riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by Scott Stiles through the city of DeSoto. After Stiles allegedly ran a red light within view of DeSoto police officer Bentley, Bentley engaged the emergency lights of his squad car and pursued them. Stiles, with Chambers still on board, sped away and a high-speed chase began. Bentley was soon joined by several fellow DeSoto officers, including Ransom, who was monitoring the chase in a back up vehicle. The chase continued on to Interstate 35, where the DeSoto officers, after radioing for assistance, were joined by Powell and Miller of the Lancaster police department. Ultimately, ten police vehicles from five jurisdictions joined the chase. All of the vehicles had their sirens and emergency lights on. Chambers testified that at one point during the chase, which exceeded speeds of 80-100 miles per hour, the police closed to within 5-10 feet, although there was testimony from some of the officers that Stiles continued to pull away from the pursuit. When Stiles ultimately attempted an exit from the interstate, careening down the exit ramp at a high rate of speed, the motorcycle crashed into a sign pole at a gas station, killing Stiles and seriously injuring Chambers.

Chambers' parents, individually and as next friends for their son, brought suit against the DeSoto and Lancaster policemen and against the respective cities alleging causes of action for (1) negligence, and (2) violation of Chambers' civil rights through the use of "excessive and deadly force" under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The officers and cities (collectively "defendants") filed motions for summary judgment asserting, among other things, that (1) they were not negligent as a matter of law because (a) they owed no duty to Chambers, and (b) their actions were not a proximate cause of the accident; (2) they were immune from suit under these facts; and (3) Chambers failed to state a cause of action under § 1983. 1 The trial court granted summary judgment on both of Chambers' claims, and rendered a take-nothing judgment.

The court of appeals reversed the trial court's judgment and remanded the negligence claims, 843 S.W.2d 143, 151, but affirmed the summary judgment on the § 1983 claims. Id. at 152.

We remand the negligence and state law immunity issues to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, and affirm the summary judgment disposing of Chambers' § 1983 claim, but not on the grounds relied upon by the court of appeals.

I. Negligence

The defendants contend that they were not negligent as a matter of law because they owed no duty to Chambers and their actions were not the proximate cause of the accident. As to the duty argument, TEX.REV.CIV.STAT. art. 6701d, § 24(e) (Vernon 1977) provides that authorized drivers of emergency vehicles have "the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons." (emphasis added). The scope of that duty encompasses Chambers. As to the proximate causation argument, we agree with the court of appeals when it explained that:

The same argument was made in Travis, and the supreme court under those facts held that the police could be a proximate cause of the accident in that case. We believe that the same reasoning applies to these facts. As the Travis court noted, proximate cause requires two elements: (1) cause in fact, and (2) foreseeability. "Cause in fact" means that the act or omission was a substantial factor in bringing about the injury and that, without it, no harm would have occurred. As in Travis, the summary judgment proof raises the inference that the motorcycle's wreck may have been caused in part by the policemen's failure to drive with due regard for Chambers' safety.... While the criminal conduct of a third party can be a superseding cause rendering the resulting injuries unforeseeable to the actor, the criminal conduct is not a superseding cause if it is a foreseeable result of the actor's negligence. Here, the [defendants'] summary judgment proof does not conclusively prove that the illegal conduct which caused the accident--Stiles' high-speed exit from the highway with the resulting loss of control of his motorcycle--was an unforeseeable result of their negligence, i.e., their failure to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons using the road. A fact question remains as to whether the [defendants] were a proximate cause of the accident.

843 S.W.2d at 148 (citations omitted). Based on this record, the defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on the basis that they were not negligent as a matter of law.

II. Official Immunity for State Law Claims

Official immunity is an affirmative defense. Perry v. Texas A & I Univ., 737 S.W.2d 106, 110 (Tex.App.--Corpus Christi 1987, writ ref'd n.r.e.). Thus, the burden is on the defendant to establish all elements of the defense. Montgomery v. Kennedy, 669 S.W.2d 309, 310-11 (Tex.1984). Government employees are entitled to official immunity from suit arising from the performance of their (1) discretionary duties in (2) good faith as long as they are (3) acting within the scope of their authority. Baker v. Story, 621 S.W.2d 639, 644 (Tex.Civ.App.--San Antonio 1981, writ ref'd n.r.e.); Wyse v. Department of Pub. Safety, 733 S.W.2d 224, 227 (Tex.App.--Waco 1986, writ ref'd n.r.e.).

A. Discretionary v. Ministerial Acts

The court of appeals held that because the officers did not have discretion to drive their vehicles without due regard for the safety of others, their actions could not be protected by official immunity. 843 S.W.2d at 149. We disagree; the court's focus should be on whether the officer is performing a discretionary function, not on whether the officer has discretion to do an allegedly wrongful act while discharging that function. If official immunity existed only in the cramped sense used by the court of appeals, its qualified promise against personal civil liability to public officers would be hollow indeed. The purpose of the doctrine of official immunity is to protect public officers from civil liability for conduct that would otherwise be actionable.

Ministerial acts are those:

[w]here the law prescribes and defines the duties to be performed with such precision and certainty as to leave nothing to the exercise of discretion or judgment ... but where the act to be done involves the exercise of discretion or judgment, it is not to be deemed merely ministerial.

Rains v. Simpson, 50 Tex. 495, 501 (1878) (quoting Commissioner of the General Land Office v. Smith, 5 Tex. 471, 479 (1849)). If an action involves personal deliberation, decision and judgment, it is discretionary; actions which require obedience to orders or the performance of a duty to which the actor has no choice, are ministerial. Wyse, 733 S.W.2d at 227.

Whether a police officer operating a vehicle in the scope of the officer's authority is performing a discretionary or ministerial act is an issue on which Texas courts have reached divergent conclusions. Compare Eubanks v. Wood, 304 S.W.2d 567, 570 (Tex.Civ.App.--Eastland 1957, writ ref'd n.r.e.) (holding that an officer's response to an emergency call "does not involve matters within his discretion as an officer") and Huddleston v. Maurry, 841 S.W.2d 24, 29 (Tex.App.--Dallas 1992, writ dism'd w.o.j.) (explaining that officers were not entitled to immunity because "their actions in the pursuit did not involve matters within their discretion") with Travis v. City of Mesquite, 830 S.W.2d 94, 103 (Tex.1992) (Cornyn, J., concurring) (arguing that officers' decision to pursue at high speed was "an exercise of discretion") and Carpenter v. Barner, 797 S.W.2d 99, 101 (Tex.App.--Waco 1990, writ denied) (noting, without discussion, that county constable was protected by immunity when he stopped a vehicle whose taillights were not operating) and Edgar v. Plummer, 845 S.W.2d 452, 454 (Tex.App.--Texarkana 1993, no writ) ("The enforcement of traffic regulations by peace officers involves the exercise of their discretion.").

In other contexts, our courts have held that police officers are exercising discretion while performing their duties. See, e.g., Dent v. City of Dallas, 729 S.W.2d 114, 117 (Tex.App.--Dallas 1986, writ ref'd n.r.e.) (holding officer was performing discretionary act in deciding when and how to arrest suspect), cert. denied, 485...

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