The City of Austin v. Howard

Decision Date10 February 2023
Docket Number03-22-00439-CV
PartiesThe City of Austin, Appellant v. Amy-Marie Howard, Individually and as Next Friend of D. A., a Minor, and as a Representative of The Estate of Johnathon Aguilar, and on Behalf of All Those Entitled to Recover Under the Texas Wrongful Death Act For The Death of Johnathon Aguilar and Nanette Mojica, Individually, Appellees
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

FROM THE 201ST DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY NO D-1-GN-21-007467, THE HONORABLE MAYA GUERRA GAMBLE, JUDGE PRESIDING

Before Baker, Triana, and Kelly Justices.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Thomas J. Baker, Justice.

The City of Austin appeals from the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction. See Tex. Civ. Prac & Rem. Code § 51.014(8). This suit arises from the tragic death of Johnathan Aguilar at the hands of Dylan Woodburn, who stabbed and killed Aguilar minutes after fleeing impending restraint by a City police officer. Appellees[1] sued the City, and other parties not before us on appeal, to recover damages for Aguilar's death. For the following reasons, we reverse the trial court's order and render judgment granting the City's plea to the jurisdiction and dismissing appellees' claims against the City.

BACKGROUND

Seeking to recover damages for the death of Aguilar, appellees filed suit against the City, the restaurant where Aguilar was killed, and the manufacturer and seller of the duty belt worn by the police officer involved in the incident.[2] The following narrative derives from the factual allegations in appellees' original petition.[3]

The morning of January 3, 2020, Austin Police Department (APD) received a "suspicious person" call related to a man-later determined to be Woodburn-inside Bennu Coffee disturbing customers, holding a large rock, and threatening customers. After the call to the police, Woodburn attacked a Bennu customer with a large object and was eventually wrestled to the ground and restrained by multiple Bennu customers. Officer Patrick Spradlin was the first APD officer to respond to the call and entered Bennu, approached Woodburn, and directed the Bennu customers restraining Woodburn to release him. The customers complied with Officer Spradlin's order.

Officer Spradlin attempted to restrain Woodburn by placing him into handcuffs. However, during the exchange, Officer Spradlin's duty belt came loose, and the officer put his handcuffs down and, with both hands, attempted to resecure his duty belt. While Officer Spradlin attempted to resecure his duty belt, Woodburn stood up and left the coffee shop. Upon exiting Bennu, Woodburn entered an adjacent restaurant (Freebirds) through a door that its general manager, Ryan Bramlett, had left unlocked, despite earlier noticing Woodburn acting strangely and erratically while peering through the restaurant's door. Bramlett had initially locked the door behind him when he first arrived at work at 7:50 a.m. to help Freebirds employee Aguilar prepare the business for the day but, shortly thereafter, Bramlett unlocked the door to allow a knife-sharpening vendor access to the business. The knife vendor placed the freshly sharpened knives on the counter and was accompanied to the door by Bramlett, who did not lock the door after the vendor left. Moments later Woodburn entered through the unlocked door, picked up a knife from the counter, and stabbed Aguilar multiple times. Aguilar died from the stab wounds.

A few days after the incident, APD chief Brian Manley stated that an officer's duty belt coming loose "is something that we do not expect to have happened. We expect to provide our officers with the best equipment, and we expect our equipment to perform appropriately." Appellees allege that the failure of Officer Spradlin's duty belt to have "keepers"[4] or other "integral safety components," the duty belt's failure to comply with APD policy, and the duty belt's use or misuse proximately caused Aguilar's death.

DISCUSSION

The City, as a political subdivision of the State, is immune from suit and liability unless the State consents. See City of Watauga v. Gordon, 434 S.W.3d 586, 589 (Tex. 2014). Governmental immunity defeats a court's jurisdiction. Dallas Area Rapid Transit v. Whitley, 104 S.W.3d 540, 542 (Tex. 2003). Where a government entity challenges jurisdiction on the basis of immunity, the plaintiff must affirmatively demonstrate the court's jurisdiction by alleging a valid waiver of immunity. Ryder Integrated Logistics, Inc. v. Fayette County, 453 S.W.3d 922, 927 (Tex. 2015). To determine if the plaintiff has met that burden, we consider the facts alleged by the plaintiff and, to the extent it is relevant to the jurisdictional issue, the evidence submitted by the parties. Whitley, 104 S.W.3d at 542. When a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the sufficiency of the claimant's pleadings, as here, we determine whether the pleadings contain enough facts to demonstrate jurisdiction. See Texas Dep 't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004). We construe the pleadings liberally in favor of the plaintiffs and look to the pleaders' intent. Id. If the pleadings do not contain sufficient facts to affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction but do not affirmatively demonstrate incurable defects in jurisdiction, the issue is one of pleading sufficiency and the plaintiffs should be afforded the opportunity to amend. Id. at 226-27. If the pleadings affirmatively negate the existence of jurisdiction, then a plea to the jurisdiction may be granted without allowing the plaintiffs an opportunity to amend. Id. at 227.

The asserted source of waiver in this case is the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA), which waives governmental immunity in a limited number of circumstances including, relevant here "personal injury and death so caused by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property." See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021. That is, the plaintiff must show that personal injury or death was "proximately caused by the condition or use of tangible property" at issue. Dallas Cnty. Mental Health & Mental Retardation v. Bossley, 968 S.W.2d 339, 343 (Tex. 1998).

Proximate cause, in turn, requires both cause in fact and foreseeability. Ryder, 453 S.W.3d at 929. For a condition or use of property to be a cause in fact, the condition or use must "serve as a substantial factor in causing the injury and without which the injury would not have occurred." Id. Further, the condition or use "must have actually caused the injury." City of Dallas v. Sanchez, 494 S.W.3d 722, 726 (Tex. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Dallas County v. Posey, 290 S.W.3d 869, 872 (Tex. 2009)). Causation is lacking if the tangible property "does no more than furnish the condition that makes the injury possible," Bossley, 968 S.W.2d at 343, and the use of property that "simply hinders or delays treatment . . . does not constitute a proximate cause of an injury," Sanchez, 494 S.W.3d at 726. To constitute cause in fact, the alleged negligent act or omission must "justify the conclusion that [the] injury was the natural and probable result thereof." Doe v. Boys Club of Greater Dall, Inc., 907 S.W.2d 472, 477 (Tex. 1995) (citations omitted).

Foreseeability requires that a person of ordinary intelligence should have anticipated the danger created by a negligent act or omission. Id. The danger of injury is foreseeable if its "general character might reasonably have been anticipated . . . and the injured party should be so situated with relation to the wrongful act that injury to him or to one similarly situated might reasonably have been foreseen." Ryder, 453 S.W.3d at 929. The question of foreseeability, and proximate cause generally, involves a practical inquiry based on "common experience applied to human conduct." Doe, 907 S.W.2d at 477. It asks whether the injury "might reasonably have been contemplated" as a result of the defendant's conduct, id, or-by extension to claims under the TTCA-as a result of the condition or use of tangible property, see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021. Proximate cause is generally a question for the factfinder unless reasonable minds could not differ about whether it exists, and thus we must determine whether the pleaded facts, taken as true, create a fact question regarding the causal relationship between the condition or use of property and the injury or death. See Ryder, 453 S.W.3d at 927, 929 (noting that we review trial court's ruling on plea to jurisdiction de novo).

Viewing the facts alleged in favor of appellees, as we must, we conclude that there is no fact question on either foreseeability[5] or cause in fact. Aguilar's death cannot be said to have been the natural and probable result of the duty belt's failure to stay put, and it was not reasonably foreseeable that the belt's failure might cause the kind of harm that Aguilar suffered. See Ryder, 453 S.W.3d at 929; Doe, 907 S.W.2d at 477. Instead, Aguilar's death was preceded by an alleged extraordinary sequence of events too causally attenuated from the alleged use or condition of the duty belt to demonstrate anything more than the duty belt's mere furnishment of a condition that made Aguilar's death possible: on January 3, 2020, Officer Spradlin's duty belt either lacked an "integral safety component" such as keepers or was not in compliance with APD policy when the officer wore it to respond to a report of a man threatening Bennu customers with a weapon. Officer Spradlin arrived on the scene and entered the coffee shop. He ordered the customers who had wrestled Woodburn to the floor and were holding him down to release him. Officer Spradlin began handcuffing Woodburn but ceased doing so when his duty belt came loose, instead attempting to resecure his duty belt....

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