Texas police officer’s government immunity waived in truck-involved crash
July 26, 2019
A trucking company will have its day in court after a Texas appellate panel said a city and one of its police officers do not have sovereign immunity for a crash that left two people seriously injured. An off-duty officer allegedly started a chain of events that resulted in a truck rear-ending a passenger vehicle.
On Tuesday, July 23, the Court of Appeals in the Fifth District of Texas reversed a lower court’s decision that took the city of Honey Grove and a police officer off the hook for a crash that was allegedly caused by the off-duty officer’s actions. The reversal allows CKJ Trucking and one of its drivers, Stephen Bond, to move forward with a lawsuit against the city.
In September 2015, off-duty Honey Grove police officer Zachary Williamson was traveling north on U.S. Highway 121 in Fannin County, Texas. Williamson spotted a Trenton, Texas, police car with its emergency lights on parked behind a passenger vehicle. An SUV was parked behind the police car, blocking the Trenton officer in.
According to court documents, the Trenton officer was parked at a “liquor store attached to a gun shop” business after hours. Williamson had testified that the “scene did not appear to be secure” because he “didn’t see any of the occupants from either vehicle either being detained or interviewed, which is a safety issue.”
Also noticing that the Trenton officer could not be seen, Williamson found the situation to be “atypical,” possibly an ambush or other scene that could require assistance.
Worried about the Trenton officer, Williamson flipped on his red and blue emergency lights and attempted to make a U-turn to the southbound lanes on U.S. 21. At this time, Ketan and Manali Amine were southbound on U.S. 121. The Amines were able to stop and avoid a collision with Williamson. However, their sudden stop caused a tractor-trailer to rear-end them. The truck was owned by CKJ Trucking and driven by Bond.
The Amines ended up filing a lawsuit against CKJ and Bond, who in turn filed a third- party petition against Williamson and Honey Grove.
CKJ allege that Honey Grove’s governmental immunity does not apply in this case because the crash was “proximately caused by the wrongful act or omission or the negligence of an employee acting within his scope of employment” and the accident arose “from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment,” which is one of the exceptions to the immunity rule.
In its counterargument, the city argued that Williamson was not in the scope of his employment because he was not acting under the direction of the Honey Grove Police Department, was not on duty at the time of the accident, was not being paid by Honey Grove, and had not received an assignment from the city. The trial court granted the city its motion to dismiss.
On appeal, Bond and CKJ Trucking argued that Texas law imposes a duty on peace officers to prevent crimes against persons committed in their presence outside their employer’s geographical limits. The appellate court agreed.
Article 6.06 of the Code of Criminal procedure states: “Whenever, in the presence of a peace officer, or within his view, one person is about to commit an offense against the person or property of another, including the person or property of his spouse, or injure himself, it is his duty to prevent it; and, for this purpose the peace officer may summon any number of the citizens of his country to his aid.”
Furthermore, Article 14.03(d) states “A peace officer who is outside his jurisdiction may arrest, without warrant, a person who commits an offense within the officer’s presence or view, if the offense is a felony, a violation of Chapter 42 or 49 of the penal code or a breach of the peace.”
The appellate court also pointed out that a Texas Supreme Court ruling concluded that “police officers have a duty to prevent crime and arrest offenders 24 hours a day, and that public duty is triggered any time an officer observes a crime even outside the hours of his official work.”
A 2011 Texas Court of Appeals also found that the triggering event does not necessarily have to be a reaction to crime taking place, but can also include police working proactively whenever reasonable suspicion occurs. In this case, a crime may not have taken place, but responding to suspicious circumstances that are ripe for criminal activity is enough to be considered within the scope of police employment.
The case has been sent back to the district court for further proceedings consistent with the appellate court’s findings.