Texas Supreme Court holds TTCA caps are cumulative, inclusive of independent contractors and their employees performing governmental functions

 

Fort Worth Transportation Authority, et al., v Rodriquez, et al., 16-0542 (Tex. April 27, 2018)

This is a statutory-construction case on the damages-cap and election-of-remedies under the Texas Tort Claims Act (“TTCA”).

After Peterson, a pedestrian, was struck and killed by a public bus in Fort Worth, her daughter, Rodriguez, sued the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (“FWTA”), its two independent contractors (MTA and MTI), and the bus driver (Vaughn) under the TTCA. Rodriguez pled a single count of negligence against all defendants collectively.  FWTA is a regional transportation authority, a governmental unit under the Transportation Code and performs governmental functions. Rodriguez asserted FWTA, MTA, and MTI were engaged in a joint venture and vicariously liable for each other’s actions, but Vaughn is only employed by the independent contractor, so cannot take advantage of the election of remedies under §101.106 of the TTCA. The trial court denied Rodriguez’s motion and granted summary judgment in favor of the Transit Defendants, ruling that FWTA, MTI, and MTA should be treated as a single governmental unit under the TTCA, limiting Rodriguez’s claim to a maximum recovery of $100,000.  The court of appeals reversed in part, holding that FWTA, MTI, and MTA were separate entities—each subject to a separate $100,000 damages cap, for a total of $300,000—and that Vaughn, an employee of MTI, was not an employee of a governmental unit and therefore was subject to unlimited personal liability. (Summary found here). The Texas Supreme Court granted the petition for review.

Texas Transportation Code §452.056(d) states an independent contractor of a transportation authority, while not a governmental entity, is liable for damages only to the extent that the authority or entity would be liable if the authority or entity itself were performing the function. The Court first analyzed the damage cap language and held the TTCA does not allow the imposition of liability above $100,000 for a single person. The fact that FWTA delegated its transportation-related governmental functions to independent contractors, as it is statutorily authorized to do, does not somehow expand the potential liability arising from those governmental functions. Next, the  Court analyzed §452.056. Since an authority is only allowed to perform governmental functions, but is allowed to contract for the performance of those functions under the statute, the contractor, by extension, is performing governmental functions. That does not grant the contractors immunity, but does limit their liability in the performance of those functions. Likewise, if Vaughn had been employed directly by FWTA, she would be entitled to protection under the TTCA’s election-of-remedies provision. That MTI provided Vaughn’s services to FWTA makes no difference. She is permitted to take advantage of §101.106. Finally, the Court held the Defendants were not entitled to attorney’s fees.

The dissent focused on the fact §452.056 did not to list independent contractors as governmental units. As a result, Justice Johnson believes that while the caps apply, they are not cumulative and Rodriguez should be entitled to $100,000 from each defendant.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. JUSTICE GREEN delivered the opinion of the Court in which CHIEF JUSTICE HECHT,JUSTICE GUZMAN, JUSTICE DEVINE, and JUSTICE BROWN joined. JUSTICE JOHNSON filed a dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE LEHRMANN and JUSTICE BOYD joined. JUSTICE BLACKLOCK did not participate in the decision.

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