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Supreme Court Denies Remedy to Women Who Were Sexually Assaulted

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Three women who were sexually assaulted by guards when they were in a substance abuse program cannot sue the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for their damages, according to a recent ruling of the Texas Supreme Court.

The decision was issued in Texas Department of Criminal Justice-Community Justice Assistance Division v. Campos, et al., ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tex. 2012)(8/26/12).

The suit was brought by three women who were inmates in a substance abuse treatment facility. Guards placed them in a certain room to perpetrate the sexual assaults, and blocked the door with a laundry cart. The women alleged that the government was negligent in its hiring and supervision of the guards, and in its placement of surveillance cameras because they created locations that were not in view.

The Supreme Court ruled that the government was immune from suit. Unless immunity is statutorily waived, a citizen may not hold the government liable for his or her damages resulting from the conduct of government workers.

Here, even though the statute waives immunity when tangible personal property is used, the Court ruled that immunity was not waived because the tangible property was not unsafe. The Court said that the cart was only used "to effect the intentional assaults." So, the tangible property was simply used in the course of and "with intent to accomplish the assaults."

In addition, a governmental entity is not liable for negligent training of the assailants "because information, even if written down, is not tangible property but is only an abstract concept." "[E]ven if a claim is based on an intentional tort, a governmental entity may still be liable for negligence if that negligence is distinct from the intentional tort.... But a cause of action for negligent supervision or training must satisfy the [Texas Tort Claims Act's] use of tangible property requirement." Here, tangible property was not used in the failure to train or supervise. "[M]isuse or non-use of information ... is not tangible property."

Finally, the decision of where to place surveillance cameras is not a "use" of property sufficient to waive immunity. "Using the cameras for surveillance is different from deciding where to place them so they might later be used."

The bottom line: the women are precluded from seeking damages and holding the state responsible for the sexual assault committed by government employees on government time in a government facility.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or 1-800-870-9584.

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