Lowe v. Texas Tech University

Decision Date14 July 1976
Docket NumberNo. B--5756,B--5756
Citation540 S.W.2d 297
PartiesAndy LOWE, Petitioner, v. TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY, Respondent.
CourtTexas Supreme Court

Garner, Vickers, Purdom & Nelson, Robert E. Garner, Lubbock, and Paul Spillman, Wellington, for petitioner.

John Hill, Atty. Gen., Jack Sparks, Asst. Atty. Gen., Austin, for respondent.

STEAKLEY, Justice.

We are required to determine if the allegations of Andy Lowe in his suit against Texas Tech University for personal injuries invoked the waiver of governmental immunity provisions of the Texas Tort Claims Act, Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann. art. 6252--19 (1970), and entitle him to a trial. The trial court held that they do not, sustaining pleas to the jurisdiction and in abatement filed by Texas Tech; this action was affirmed by the Court of Civil Appeals, 530 S.W.2d 337. Our view is otherwise and we accordingly reverse the judgments below and remand the cause to the trial court.

Lowe alleged that he sustained an injury to his left knee while playing varsity football for Texas Tech; and that on a later occasion the knee was reinjured, the result of which was total and permanent disablement. He further alleged, as pertinent here, that 'the coaching staff, management, and trainers' of Texas Tech were negligent in these respects:

In failing to furnish proper equipment, braces, and/or supporting devices to Plaintiff;

In failing to permit Plaintiff to wear proper equipment, braces and supporting devices available;

In furnishing equipment, uniforms and pads which were defective;

In refusing to permit Plaintiff to wear proper and correctly prescribed equipment, braces and supporting devices.

Texas Tech correctly states that the State is not liable for torts of its officers or agents in the absence of a constitutional or statutory provision therefor. Texas Highway Department v. Weber, 147 Tex. 628, 219 S.W.2d 70 (1949); and that a State agency such as Texas Tech shares this governmental immunity. Walsh v. University of Texas, 169 S.W.2d 993 (Tex.Civ.App.--El Paso 1942, writ ref'd); Texas Technological College v. Fry,278 S.W.2d 480 (Tex.Civ.App.--Amarillo 1954, no writ). See also Greenhill & Murto, Governmental Immunity, 49 Tex.L.Rev. 462 (1971). We adhere to our decisions in the past that the waiver of governmental immunity is a matter addressed to the Legislature.

The Texas Tort Claims Act was enacted by the Legislature in 1970. The statute provided for waiver of governmental immunity in three general areas: use of publicly owned automobiles, premises defects, and injuries arising out of conditions or use of property. The statute calls for liberal construction to effectuate its purposes (Section 13). The problem before us for determination at this stage of the proceeding is whether Lowe's allegations of negligence state a case within the waiver of immunity provided in the following provision of the statute:

Sec. 3. Each unit of government in the state shall be liable for money damages for property damage or personal injuries or death when proximately caused by the negligence or wrongful act or omission of any officer or employee acting within the scope of his employment or office arising from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle and motor-driven equipment, other than motor-driven equipment used in connection with the operation of floodgates or water release equipment by river authorities created under the laws of this state, under circumstances where such officer or employee would be personally liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of this state, or death or personal injuries so caused from some condition or some use of tangible property, real or personal, under circumstances where such unit of government, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of this state. Such liability is subject to the exceptions contained herein, and it shall not extend to punitive or exemplary damages. Liability hereunder shall be limited to $100,000 per person and $300,000 for any single occurrence for bodily injury or death and to $10,000 for any single occurrence for injury to or destruction of property.

We paraphrase that portion of Section 3 pertinent here as follows:

Each unit of government in the state shall be liable for money damages for death or personal injuries So caused (i.e., when proximately caused by the negligence or wrongful act or omission of any officer or employee acting within the scope of his employment or office) from some condition or some use of tangible property under circumstances where there would be private liability.

If the above quoted allegations of Lowe state a case for recovery within these waiver of immunity provisions, the abatement and dismissal of Lowe's suit was in error, and he is entitled to a trial.

We have heretofore considered this legislative language in Texas Dept. of Corrections v. Herring, 513 S.W.2d 6 (Tex.1974); McGuire v. Overton Memorial Hospital, 514 S.W.2d 79 (Tex.Civ.App.--Tyler), Writ ref'd n.r.e. by per curiam, 518 S.W.2d 528 (Tex.1975); Mokry v. University of Texas Health Science Center at Dallas, 529 S.W.2d 802 (Tex.Civ.App.--Dallas 1975, writ ref'd n.r.e.); and Beggs v. Texas Dept. of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, 496 S.W.2d 252 (Tex.Civ.App.--San Antonio 1973, writ ref'd).

Herring ruled that an allegation that the state agency failed 'to provide adequate medical care and treatment' does not allege a 'use of tangible property' within the ambit of the Texas Tort Claims Act. We approved the holding in Beggs to the same effect, i.e., that an alleged negligent act in transferring a patient from a state hospital to a private nursing home did not involve the use of tangible property.

In McGuire, we let stand a judgment of reversal of a summary judgment in favor of a municipally operated hospital, and a remand for trial, of a suit for personal injuries caused when a patient fell while attempting to get out of bed. The allegations of negligence were the failure to provide a bed with side boards or guard rails, the failure to take proper cognizance of the condition of the patient and to anticipate and guard against the accident, the failure to exercise the care and proper attention toward the patient, and the failure to provide adequate nurses and attendants. We said:

'. . . We believe that injuries proximately caused by negligently providing a bed without bed rails are proximately caused from some condition or some use of tangible property under circumstances where a private person would be liable. Therefore, if the Hospital is found negligent in providing a bed without guard rails, it may not assert governmental immunity . . ..' (518 S.W.2d 528)

Also to the point in the light of the writing by the Court of Civil Appeals was our action of approval in Mokry. Mokry brought suit under the Tort Claims Act for personal injuries resulting from the negligent loss of his left eyeball after it had been surgically removed and while it was being prepared for laboratory examination at the University of Texas Health Science Center. The negligence alleged against the State agency was the failure to provide for use certain items of laboratory equipment, together with the failure to properly use the facilities that were employed. It was specifically held by the Court of Civil Appeals that the allegations to such effect stated a cause of action arising from some condition or use of tangible property within the purview of the Texas Tort Claims Act:

. . . We hold that these pleadings adequately allege a cause of action for damages from negligent acts or omissions of an employee of the state, acting within the scope of his employment, arising from some condition or use of tangible property under circumstances which the state, if it were a private person, would be liable to the plaintiff.

Gonzales v. Lubbock State School, 487 S.W.2d 815 (Tex.Civ.App.--Amarillo 1972, no writ), prominently cited by Texas Tech in support of its position, did not reach this Court for review; even so, the specific holding is not in point here, i.e., that allegations of negligence against the State agency in hiring incapable employees, in failing to maintain adequate supervision, and in failing to have a sufficient number of qualified employees, do not constitute allegations of negligence arising from some condition or use of tangible property.

The allegations in the case at bar require a construction of the statutory language of the Tort Claims Act in two respects: whether the waiver of immunity is invoked by allegations that Texas Tech through its authorized personnel was negligent in affirmatively furnishing 'equipment, uniforms and pads which were defective'; and, whether the waiver is also invoked by the allegations of negligent acts of failure to furnish proper equipment and failure or refusal to permit the wearing of proper equipment. Neither the brief of Texas Tech nor the opinion of the Court of Civil Appeals speaks to the former; as to the latter, Texas Tech argues in its brief, and the Court of Civil Appeals has held, that Lowe's allegations of negligent failure to furnish the proper equipment, or to permit his wearing of proper equipment, do not state a cause of action under the waiver of immunity provisions of the statute. The rationale is that allegations to such effect do not state a case arising from some condition or some use of tangible property.

As to the first, we hold that the affirmative allegation of furnishing defective equipment to Lowe states a case within the statutory waiver of immunity arising from some condition or some use of tangible property. It is further apparent that a failure to furnish proper protective equipment for Lowe's injured knee, if such was the case, is not distinguishable, in so far as the problem at hand is concerned, from the failure to provide bed rails for a hospital bed in McGuire, or from the failure to provide protective...

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