Filing a personal injury lawsuit in the Texas civil court system is an option for anyone who has suffered harm as a result of the negligence of a private individual or entity. But what happens when you are injured by a government agency or one of its employees? For example, let's say you are in a car accident with a county vehicle or you slip and fall in a state building. In those situations, you're usually required to file a claim under the Texas Tort Claims Act if you want to get compensation for your losses. Read on for the details.
The Texas Tort Claims Act can be found at Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Title 5, Chapter 101. Enacted in 1969, the Act partially waives the state’s sovereign immunity. This means that the most "governmental units" in the state may be sued if the unit or one of its employees commits a negligent act that results in harm.
The Texas Tort Claims Act, Section 101.021, specifies that a "governmental unit" includes almost any government agency or organization at either the state or a local level, such as all state agencies and "all departments, bureaus, boards, commissions, offices, agencies, councils, and courts" of the state, plus "a political subdivision of this state, including any city, county, school district, junior college district, levee improvement district, drainage district, irrigation district," and so on.
Under the Act, a "governmental unit" can be held liable for two classes of injuries:
However, two conditions exist. The state is only liable if the employee that caused the accident was both “acting within the scope of his employment” and if the employee would have been liable if he or she had been a private individual.
In claims involving car accidents or similar accidents, an injured person may seek damages if death, personal injury, or property damage occur. In other cases -- such as a premises liability claim for a slip and fall accident -- the injured person may seek damages if death or personal injury occur, but may not seek damages for harm caused to property.
In addition, the damages that can be recovered in a claim against the state government are limited. The Texas Tort Claims Act limits damages in these claims to no more than $250,000 per person and $500,000 per occurrence for bodily injury, and $100,000 per occurrence for damaged property.
Claims against a local or municipal government in Texas should be filed with the local or municipal government directly, instead of with the state. Most municipal governments provide instructions and/or forms for filing a claim. For instance, the City of Houston offers instructions and contact information on its Legal Department website. The City of Austin also gives instructions and a mailing address.
Currently, the Tort Claims Act states that a local or municipal government, as well as the state government, may be held liable for damages if it is negligent in performing certain “government functions,” or functions that the municipality has the power to carry out under Texas law. These include things like police and fire protection, sanitation services, street and bridge construction, and a host of other tasks.
However, municipalities are not liable for damages that arise out of “proprietary functions,” or functions the municipality is allowed but not required to perform. These include things like parks operated by the municipality or “abnormally dangerous or ultrahazardous” activities. In these situations, the government is liable exactly as if it were a private person. It cannot use the Texas Tort Claims Act to shield itself from liability.
Damages that can be recovered from "a unit of local government" are also limited to $100,000 per person and $300,000 per occurrence for bodily injury and $100,000 per occurrence for property damage. For claims against a "municipality," damages limits are $250,000 per person and $500,000 per occurrence for bodily injury, and $100,000 per occurrence for damaged property.
Section 101.101 of the Texas Tort Claims Act states that notice of a claim must be filed with the appropriate government unit within six months of the date of the accident. The notice must include a description of the injury or damage, the time and place the incident occurred, and a description of what happened.
Some local and municipal governments set shorter time limits for filing notice of a claim. For instance, the City of Houston has a 90-day time limit. In the City of Austin, the time limit is only 45 days.