Juhl v. Airington, 94-0989

CourtSupreme Court of Texas
Citation936 S.W.2d 640
Docket NumberNo. 94-0989,94-0989
Parties39 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 830, 40 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 302 Maria JUHL, Breck Landry, Martha Arellano, Richard D. Weiss, Betty F. Jameson, Grace Madrid, Barbara Shepard Baldwin f/k/a Barbara Licht Shepard and Shirley Riordan, Petitioners, v. Thomas AIRINGTON, Respondent.
Decision Date31 January 1997

Page 640

936 S.W.2d 640
39 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 830, 40 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 302
Maria JUHL, Breck Landry, Martha Arellano, Richard D. Weiss,
Betty F. Jameson, Grace Madrid, Barbara Shepard
Baldwin f/k/a Barbara Licht Shepard and
Shirley Riordan, Petitioners,
Thomas AIRINGTON, Respondent.
No. 94-0989.
Supreme Court of Texas.
Argued Sept. 5, 1995.
Decided June 28, 1996.
Rehearing Overruled Jan. 31, 1997.

Cynthia S. Anderson, Monty Kimball, H. Keith Myers, Mary W. Craig, Patrick Groves, Larry W. Hicks, El Paso and Elizabeth German, Albuquerque, NM, for Petitioners.

Page 641

C. Jeff Minor, Gordon Stewart, El Paso, for Respondent.

PHILLIPS, Chief Justice, delivered the opinion of the Court in which HECHT, CORNYN, ENOCH, SPECTOR, OWEN and BAKER, Justices, joined.

A police officer brought this suit against a dozen protesters for an injury he allegedly sustained to his back while trying to remove one of their group from an abortion clinic. The officer claimed that the negligence of each defendant proximately caused his back injury. The trial court granted summary judgment for ten of the twelve defendants and granted a severance to make the judgment final. The court of appeals reversed and remanded for trial on the merits. 883 S.W.2d 286. We conclude that there is no theory under which any of the participants before us may be held liable for an injury sustained by an officer in removing another demonstrator. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and render judgment that plaintiff take nothing.


On September 16, 1989, a group of demonstrators attempted to block access to the Reproductive Services Clinic in El Paso. Individual demonstrators testified that they intended to disrupt the clinic's activities for as long as possible by placing themselves in front of the clinic's doors. Police officers called to the scene, including Officer Thomas Airington, ordered the demonstrators to leave the premises. Some refused to cooperate, forcing the officers to arrest them and literally carry them away. Officer Airington claims that he injured his back when he and another officer attempted to remove protestor Sylvia Salazar. In addition to Salazar, Airington also sued Samuel Oppenheim, the protest organizer, and protestors Maria Juhl, Breck Landry, Martha Arellano, Richard D. Weiss, Betty F. Jameson, Grace Madrid, Barbara Shepard Baldwin, Shirley Riordan, James Gose and Aileen Gose. Airington alleged that each defendant was negligent in: associating and acting together for the purpose of creating a disruption of a legal business which they knew or should have known would lead to a confrontation with police and others; creating a situation which they knew or should have known would create a danger of injury to officers who had to physically remove the protestors; participating in planning or agreeing to the demonstration; failing to obey a lawful order and leave the premises; and failing to assist the police in removing Salazar and themselves from the site.

Following discovery, all defendants except Salazar and Oppenheim moved for summary judgment. They argued that they had no duty to prevent Salazar from injuring Airington, that their actions or inactions were not a proximate cause of Airington's injury, and that no defendant exercised control over any other demonstrator. 1

Taking the record in the light most favorable to the non-movant, the summary judgment evidence reveals that most protesters learned about the demonstration by word of mouth no more than two days in advance. Nevertheless, three to four hundred potential protesters gathered at Alive Ministries Church on the night before the protest. During this meeting, the possibility of arrest was discussed. Oppenheim suggested that "assuming a limp position would identify with limp, dead babies, with helpless babies, perhaps in the womb," and that doing so would also "give us more time to accomplish our purpose which was saving babies and mothers from abortion." The morning of the demonstration, the protesters again met at the church. Oppenheim and others (no one could remember who) advised them where to go, what to do when they got to the clinic, and how to respond passively if confronted by police. It was left to each individual, however, to decide whether to obey a police order to leave or to disobey and risk arrest, and if the latter, whether to cooperate with the arresting officer or to passively resist removal. Many of the protestors rode together

Page 642

to the clinic in vans or buses that were provided for them. There is some evidence that the protestors understood that those who rode in the vans had decided to enter onto the clinic grounds, refuse to leave, and subject themselves to arrest.

The trial court granted the summary judgment, severing the remaining actions against Salazar and Oppenheim to make the judgment final and appealable. The court of appeals reversed, holding that defendants had conclusively disproved neither duty nor causation.


The court of appeals held that fact issues remained both "as to the status of the group ... as an unincorporated association" and "as to whether [defendants] were acting in concert with each other and with Oppenheim and Salazar." 883 S.W.2d at 290. The court identified the central issue to be whether defendants constituted an unincorporated association, as there would be "potential individual tort liability of members of such an association for the negligence of other members or the negligence of the association itself." 883 S.W.2d at 288. The court reasoned that if the defendants were an unincorporated association, they could be directly liable for "one member of [this] unincorporated association act[ing] in concert with other members," and because defendants owed Airington a duty "to not set the proceedings leading to the injurious conduct in motion and a duty to not agree and act in concert with the actual tortfeasor." 883 S.W.2d at 290.

While recognizing that "no Texas cases have specifically held that a member of such an association may be liable for the tortious act of another member," the court relied on Cox v. Thee Evergreen Church, 836 S.W.2d 167 (Tex.1992), and several court of appeals cases interpreting Cox, as "suggest[ing] that such liability may in fact be imposed." 883 S.W.2d at 288. Actually, Cox held only that a member of an unincorporated association could sue the association. Cox, 836 S.W.2d at 173. Cox may in fact reasonably be read as precluding group liability for one member's conduct. In abrogating the common law rule that a member cannot sue the group because the group's negligence is imputed to the member, the Court necessarily concluded that membership no longer automatically carries with it legal responsibility for the group's actions. As Justice Cook, joined by Justice Hecht, noted in a concurring opinion:

The implicit holding of today's opinion is that the individual liability of a member will be based on their actual participation in the tort or ratification of the actions which cause injury. Accordingly, I do not believe that an injured member should be able to recover for their injuries from another member who did not participate in or ratify the conduct leading to the member's injury.

Cox, 836 S.W.2d at 174. Thus, even if the demonstrators constituted an unincorporated association, we have never held that they are automatically liable for the actions of other members of the association.

Further, imposing liability on individuals on the sole basis that a member of a group to which they belong has committed a tort in pursuit of the group's goals would pose serious threats to the right of free association. As the United States Supreme Court recognized in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 931-32, 102 S.Ct. 3409, 3435-36, 73 L.Ed.2d 1215 (1982), where it refused to allow the national organization to be liable for the actions of some members of a local chapter unless it had authorized or ratified the unlawful conduct, "[t]he rights of political association are fragile enough without ... the additional threat of destruction by lawsuit." Nor did the Court allow individual members to be held liable for mere membership in the local chapter absent proof of "a specific intent to further an unlawful aim embraced by the group." Id. at 925, 102 S.Ct. at 3432. The Court reasoned that this would amount to a constitutionally impermissible "guilt by association." Id.

Our sister court has refused to impose criminal liability because of similar concerns for the right of free association protected under article I, section 27 of the Texas Constitution. In discussing the mental state necessary

Page 643

to convict a defendant under an anti-riot statute, the Court of Criminal Appeals recognized that:

Read literally, the riot statute criminalizes a knowing participation in an initially peaceable assembly that subsequently results in conduct creating an immediate danger of damage to property or injury to persons. If this language is not construed to require that the defendant participate in said assembly after gaining knowledge of the inception of such conduct, the statute would constitute a clear abridgement of the right of peaceable assembly.

Ferguson v. State, 610 S.W.2d 468, 470 (Tex.Crim.App.1979). Therefore, the Court reversed the conviction, which was based on a jury charge that did not properly instruct the jury on the knowledge necessary for guilt.

We believe that the liability of members of a group should be analyzed in terms of the specific actions undertaken, authorized or ratified by those members. Therefore, regardless of whether there was an unincorporated association here, 2 we reject the lower court's intimation that the existence of such an association might alone form the basis for imposing tort liability on all members for the acts of some.


Airington also asserts that the summary judgment should have been reversed because there is...

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