Supreme Court Favors Government Over Injured Woman

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Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court once again ruled that an injured citizen may not be compensated for damages caused by a defective road. The case was City of Denton v. Paper, ___ S.W.3d___ (Tex. 2012).

In this case, a cyclist received significant injuries from an unexpected, sunken area in the street left by the city after sewer work. To have gone around it, she would have had to ride into the oncoming lane of traffic, according to the court of appeals. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying someone could have ridden around it without getting into the opposing lane.

Generally, people injured on premises open to the public are treated as "invitees." The premises owner owes the duty of ordinary care to them, which simply means the obligation not to injure them negligently. This requires a premises owner, such as a shopping mall, to fix a problem or warn people about it.

The government, however, has reduced the standard of care for itself. By a statute, normally the government only has the standard of care owed to "licensees." This is the duty not to injure someone by willful or wanton acts or gross negligence. It has to warn or fix a defect only if it has actual knowledge of it. Thus, the government must take far less effort to discover hazards and protect the public from injury, and it is consequently far more difficult to require the government to take responsibility for the injuries it causes.

There is an exception. If the premises have a "special defect," the government then owes the injured victim the duty of ordinary care: namely, not to unreasonably injure him. The statute says a special defect is like an excavation or obstruction in the road. Over the years, however, the Supreme Court has imposed a very narrow reading on this provision, making it nearly impossible for an injured person to obtain justice and to require the government to bear the obligation not to cause injuries to the public.

In City of Denton, the Court once again imposed a narrow reading on the statute. It said that the hole was not a special defect and that, even though the city had already been required to return to the site once to further repair the sewer line when the area sank, it had no "actual knowledge" of this hazard. Therefore, the citizen was left to suffer on her own the costs of her medical bills and injuries.

If you or someone you know has been injured as a result of negligence of a governmental unit, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or 1-800-870-9584.

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