“SPECIAL DEFECTS” AND GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITY—SIZE MATTERS

City of Lancaster v. LaFlore
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-17-01443-CV (October 10, 2018)
Justices Bridges, Francis, and Lang-Miers (Opinion, linked here)
While driving in Lancaster, LaFlore ran over a manhole with a partially dislodged cover, causing him to lose control of his car and hit a tree, injuring himself and his children who were passengers. He sued the City, which moved to dismiss, claiming governmental immunity. The trial court denied the City’s motion, but the Dallas Court reversed on appeal.

The Texas Tort Claims Act provides a limited waiver of governmental immunity in personal injury cases caused by “special defects” on roadways and other public premises. Whether a condition is a “special defect” is a question of law that the court of appeals reviews de novo—although “courts consider each case’s ‘unique facts’” in making that decision. Drawing upon opinions from the Texas Supreme Court, the Dallas Court explained that the waiver of immunity for “special defects” on city streets is to be narrowly construed; the condition must “fall[] within the same class as an excavation or obstruction” on a roadway. The characteristics that will guide this determination include “(1) the size of the condition; (2) whether the condition unexpectedly and physically impairs an ordinary user’s ability to travel on the road; (3) whether the condition presents some unusual quality apart from the ordinary course of events; and (4) whether the condition presents an unexpected and unusual danger.”

Winding its way through a number of cases that had found open manholes and uncovered water meter boxes to be “special defects”— where pedestrians or bicycles were involved, but not automobiles—and others that had not, the Court ultimately concluded the condition here did not fall into the class of “excavations or obstructions” on a roadway. The manhole was about two feet wide and was located directly on the center strip of the street. Motorists like LaFlore did not have to alter their “normal course of travel” or leave their lanes of traffic to avoid it. It was, therefore, unlike the much larger potholes and excavations the Court previously had found to be “special defects.” Nor, the Court lamented, was a dislodged manhole cover “some unusual quality apart from the ordinary course of events,” but instead, something drivers should have come to expect nowadays.

In sum, the Court said, “not every hole or hindrance is special.” This one, alas for LaFlore, was not. And so the court of appeals reversed and rendered judgment for the City.

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