Personal injury Library

When Do Texas Courts Apply Sovereign Immunity?

How sovereign immunity works under Texas law:

In this article, we'll touch on the basics of sovereign immunity---which is the law that strongly limits when someone can sue the Texas state government for state, county, or local employees or facilities that cause injury or death.

This is an incredibly complex and byzantine area of the law. Nonetheless, the main underlying principles of how you hold the government accountable are rooted in personal injury law.

Questions Answered on This Page:

  • What exactly is "sovereign immunity"?
  • What does Texas law have to say about sovereign immunity?

The origins of sovereign immunity.

America inherited its legal system from England. At our founding, for as long as there'd been a king, he was immune from lawsuits. And it wasn't just the king himself, but "the Crown"---a fancy way of saying the entirety of the government. Much scholarly debate surely exists about the reasoning behind why "the King can do no wrong," but it doesn't matter. Bottom line: for centuries in both England and America, you couldn't sue the government. It didn't matter even if a government employee negligently killed a citizen, his or her family had no recourse against the state.

Texas law on sovereign immunity today.

In Texas, this ancient doctrine was loosened . . . a little . . . last century. Through legislation called the "Texas Tort Claims Act" (TTCA), the state didn't completely renounce sovereign immunity, but instead allowed citizens injured by employees and facilities in certain circumstances. For clarity's sake, we'll break it down into two main questions:

  1. Did the state act negligently through its employees? We explain the basics of negligence here, but the jury would essentially be asked to determine if the government employee acted in an unreasonably unsafe way that resulted in your injuries. In other words, did the employee make a mistake that hurt you?
  2. Has the government waived sovereign immunity for your particular type of accident? Under the TTCA, there are 8 types of accidents for which the government can be held financially responsible:
    • Vehicle-related accidents
    • Personal property misuses
    • An inmates misuse of a motor vehicle
    • Premises defects
    • "Special" defects on roadways
    • Traffic control device problems
    • Premises defects after paying to use the facilities
    • Premises defects on real property for recreational purposes

The main point here is that some government entity or employee that WOULD have been liable in normal, non-governmental circumstances can be liable in the 8 scenarios listed above.

The TTCA has many other requirements and nuances.

The government, as you might imagine, never makes anything simple. For reasons ranging from sensible to outright maddening, the state has put procedural steps in place that your attorney must know like the back of his hand. This is just a sample:

  • The difference between "governmental" and "proprietary" government functions. For the most part, county and local governments perform "governmental" functions that benefit every citizen. For example, a resident of Houston who's in El Paso is entitled to the exact same police protections as the locals. The same holds true for local authorities in Port Aransas who maintain the beaches. Sovereign immunity, if not waived, applies to these functions. However, if a government acts purely for the benefit of its local citizens or its employees, it is entitled to no immunity. One example would be if Denton County opened a pool accessible only for county residents.
  • What a "government employee" actually is. The TTCA and sovereign immunity only apply to those who meet the statutory definition of a state or local employee. Volunteers and---more importantly---independent contractors cannot claim immunity. One example would be a construction company hired to build a school or a courthouse. Your attorney would not have to jump through any of the hurdles the TTCA requires to sue these entities if they caused your injuries.
  • Counties and some cities have strict "notice requirements." Before filing suit against a county, the TTCA requires that your attorney "present" your claim to the county government. It must explain what happened, what you lost, and how much money you're willing to settle for. If the county government accepts your offer, your case is over. If they don't and you take your case to trial, you owe the county court costs if the jury gives you less money than what the county had previously offered. Further, some cities require that you bring your claim to the city government within X number of days or months within the accident in order for them to ever be liable. In Austin, for example, you must present your claim within a mere 45 days.

The bottom line is that you need to talk to a lawyer who's been down this road plenty of times before. If you've been hurt or lost a loved one because a governmental entity or employee made a mistake, call us at (855) 326-0000 now.

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