Via Metro. Transit v. Meck

Decision Date18 April 2018
Docket NumberNo. 04-17-00108-CV,04-17-00108-CV
Citation587 S.W.3d 14
Parties VIA METROPOLITAN TRANSIT, Appellant v. Curtis MECK, Appellee
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

Wallace Jefferson, Alexandra W. Albright, Amy Warr, Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend LLP, 515 Congress Avenue, Suite 2350, Austin, TX 78701, Ricardo R. Reyna, Rodney Eugene Cox, Joshua Nicholls, Brock Person Guerra Reyna, P.C., San Antonio, TX 78247, for Appellant.

Charles A. Riley, Darby Riley, Riley & Riley, 320 Lexington Avenue, San Antonio, TX 78215, for Appellee.

Sitting: Karen Angelini, Justice, Marialyn Barnard, Justice, Rebeca C. Martinez, Justice


Opinion by: Marialyn Barnard, Justice

Appellee Curtis Meck was injured while riding a bus operated by appellant VIA Metropolitan Transit ("VIA"). Meck sued VIA, alleging his neck, back, and wrist injuries were caused by the bus driver's negligent operation of the bus. After a jury trial, the trial court rendered judgment for Meck based on the jury's verdict. In two issues on appeal, VIA argues: (1) the trial court erred by including in the jury charge a "high degree of care" standard applicable to common carriers; and (2) there is no evidence VIA breached the applicable ordinary care standard. We affirm the trial court's judgment.


Meck was riding a VIA bus when he reached up to grab the bus strap located above him to signal the bus to stop. Meck had just boarded the bus when he pulled the strap; however, by the time he pulled the strap, the bus had started to accelerate. As the bus began to move, another passenger exclaimed, "Back door!" — a common call on buses — to alert the bus driver that Meck wished to stop. The bus driver had recently completed VIA's classroom training program, and at the time of the incident, he was participating in on-the-road training. Wanda Scott, another VIA operator, was also riding the bus as a "line instructor" to observe and evaluate the bus driver.

What happened next is disputed. According to Meck, the bus driver abruptly stopped when he heard the passenger exclaim, "Back door!" Meck claimed the bus driver over-reacted and slammed on his brakes, causing him to lurch forward and injure himself. Meck further claimed that later that day he felt stiff, and as a result, he went to the hospital where he learned he sustained injuries to his neck, back, and wrist. VIA, on the other hand, claimed the bus driver slowly came to a stop after he heard someone exclaim, "Back door!" According to VIA, the bus had been in motion for no more than 5 seconds and was going less than 5 miles per hour when the bus driver stopped the bus.

Meck sued VIA alleging negligence. At trial, the jury heard testimony from Meck, who testified about the foregoing events. During his testimony, Meck explained that because he had just boarded the bus, he was not situated to brace for a sudden stop. The jury also heard testimony from Scott, who testified the correct way for a bus driver to stop when asked to make an undesignated stop was to continue driving and make a courtesy stop on the other side of the intersection so that he could smoothly slow the bus and bring it to a stop. In addition to Meck's and Scott's testimony, the jury heard testimony from VIA's vice president for safety support regarding VIA's bus safety standards. The jury also reviewed a video of the incident.

In the jury charge, negligence was defined as "failure to use a high degree of care, that is, failing to do that which a very cautious, competent, and prudent person would have done under the same or similar circumstances or doing that which a very cautious, competent, and prudent person would not have done under the same or similar circumstances." The jury ultimately determined the negligence of VIA, acting through its bus driver, proximately caused Meck's injuries. The jury awarded Meck $30,000 for past pain and mental anguish, $15,000 for future pain and mental anguish, $15,000 for past physical impairment, $15,000 for future physical impairment, $40,000 for past medical expenses, and $60,000 for future medical expenses. The trial court rendered judgment for Meck based on the jury's verdict and reduced Meck's actual damages to $100,000 pursuant to the Texas Tort Claims Act. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.023(b) (West 2011) (limiting liability of unit of local government to money damages in maximum amount of $100,000). This appeal followed.


On appeal, VIA raises two issues challenging the jury charge and sufficiency of the evidence. In its first issue, VIA argues the trial court erred by defining the duty element of negligence in the jury charge as requiring adherence to a "high degree of care" standard, and as a result, it was prejudiced by the inclusion. In its second issue on appeal, VIA asserts there is no evidence it breached an ordinary standard of care.

Jury Charge

As indicated above, VIA challenges the jury charge by arguing the charge defines the duty element of negligence as imposing a "high degree of care" standard, and it is not subject to such a standard as a matter of law. VIA further argues it was therefore prejudiced by the instruction.

To support its argument, VIA asserts the following two subpoints: (1) the "high degree of care" standard applies only to common carriers and it is not a common carrier because it is not "in business;" and (2) it is immune from suit because it is a governmental unit, and its immunity is not waived under the motor-driven vehicle exception of the Texas Tort Claims Act ("TTCA"). With regard to its second subpoint, VIA argues waiver under the motor-driven vehicle exception applies only to tort claims that allege a governmental entity failed to use ordinary care as opposed to a "high degree of care" as set out in the jury charge.

In response, Meck asserts VIA is a common carrier subject to the "high degree of care" standard. According to Meck, VIA is a common carrier because its primary function is public transportation. Meck asserts VIA meets the traditional definitions of common carrier, citing both the former Texas Transportation Code1 and Black's Law Dictionary.2 In response to VIA's immunity argument, Meck contends the degree of care required under the motor-driven vehicle exception is not limited to ordinary negligence, but rather is based on the potential liability of the employee. Meck claims the exception incorporates the common law of Texas, which, in this case, is the "high degree of care" standard owed by a bus driver of a common carrier.

Standard of Review

"We review a trial court's decision to submit or refuse a particular instruction in its charge for an abuse of discretion." Thota v. Young , 366 S.W.3d 678, 687 (Tex. 2012) ; Dallas Area Rapid Transit v. Morris , 434 S.W.3d 752, 757 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2014, pet. denied) ; VIA Metro. Transit Auth. v. Barraza , No. 04-13-00035-CV, 2013 WL 6255761, at *9 (Tex. App.—San Antonio Dec. 4, 2013, pet. denied) (mem. op.). A trial court abuses its discretion when it acts in an arbitrary manner without reference to any guiding rules or principles. Carpenter v. Cimarron Hydrocarbons Corp. , 98 S.W.3d 682, 687 (Tex. 2002) ; Barraza , 2013 WL 6255761, at *9. "Submission of the charge is the trial court's responsibility, and the trial court is given wide latitude to determine the propriety of explanatory instructions and definitions." Morris , 434 S.W.3d at 758. "An instruction is proper if it (1) assists the jury, (2) accurately states the law, and (3) finds support in the pleadings and evidence." Thota , 366 S.W.3d at 687 (quoting Columbia Rio Grande Healthcare, L.P. v. Hawley , 284 S.W.3d 851, 855–56 (Tex. 2009) ); Barraza , 2013 WL 6255761, at *9 ; see Morris , 434 S.W.3d at 758.

We will not reverse a trial court's judgment for a charge error unless that error was harmful. Thota , 366 S.W.3d at 687 ; Barraza , 2013 WL 6255761, at *9. Error is considered harmful if it "probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment" or "probably prevented the petitioner from properly presenting the case to the appellate courts." Thota , 366 S.W.3d at 687 (quoting TEX. R. APP. P. 61.1) ; Barraza , 2013 WL 6255761, at *9 (same); see TEX. R. APP. P. 44.1(a).

1. Whether VIA is Immune from Suit

Because immunity from suit deprives a court of subject matter jurisdiction absent a valid statutory or constitutional waiver of immunity, we will first address VIA's contention that it is immune from suit and the TTCA does not waive its immunity from suit. Suarez v. City of Tex. City , 465 S.W.3d 623, 632 (Tex. 2015). "Without jurisdiction, the court cannot proceed at all in any cause; it may not assume jurisdiction for the purpose of deciding the merits of the case." Zachry Constr. Corp. v. Port of Houston Auth. of Harris Cnty. , 449 S.W.3d 98, 108 (Tex. 2014) (quoting Rusk State Hosp. v. Black , 392 S.W.3d 88, 95 (Tex. 2012) ; Fin. Comm'n of Tex. v. Norwood , 418 S.W.3d 566, 578 (Tex. 2013) ). In analyzing VIA's contention, we must determine whether: (1) VIA is a governmental entity immune from suit, and (2) if VIA is immune from suit, whether the TTCA waives VIA's immunity from suit. See Suarez , 465 S.W.3d at 632 ; Zachry Constr. Corp. , 449 S.W.3d at 108.

Applicable Law

Absent an express waiver of governmental immunity, a local governmental entity is generally immune from lawsuits for money damages. State v. Holland , 221 S.W.3d 639, 642 (Tex. 2007) ; City of Houston v. Nicolai , 539 S.W.3d 378, 385-86 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.], 2017, no pet.). "[I]t is the Legislature's sole province to waive or abrogate sovereign immunity." Tex. Nat. Res. Conservation Comm'n v. IT–Davy , 74 S.W.3d 849, 853 (Tex. 2002) ; see also Tooke v. City of Mexia , 197 S.W.3d 325, 332 (Tex. 2006). We interpret statutory waivers of immunity narrowly because legislative consent to sue must be expressed in clear and unambiguous language. IT–Davy , 74 S.W.3d at 854 ; MRSW Mgmt. LLC v. Tex. Dep't of Pub. Safety , 403 S.W.3d 503, 506 (...

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  • VIA Metro. Transit v. Meck
    • United States
    • Texas Supreme Court
    • June 26, 2020
    ...the Texas Tort Claims Act's damages cap, and entered judgment awarding Meck $100,000. The court of appeals affirmed, 587 S.W.3d 14, 17 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2018), and we granted VIA's petition for review.II.High Degree of Care Except when specifically provided otherwise, "the duties and l......

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