GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITY: “A POLICE OFFICER IS ALWAYS A POLICE OFFICER”

CKJ Trucking, L.P. v. City of Honey Grove
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-18-00205-CV (July 23, 2019)
Justices Partida-Kipness (Opinion, linked here), Pedersen, III, and Carlyle
In May, the Supreme Court of Texas confirmed that State statutes “explicitly contemplate[] that peace officers will, in certain circumstances, stop crime wherever it occurs” and “whenever it occurs.” Garza v. Harrison, 574 S.W.3d 389 (Tex. 2019). Because of that, the Court concluded, an off-duty police officer was acting in his official capacity when he fatally shot a suspect during the course of an attempted arrest outside the officer’s primary jurisdiction; the decedent’s parents therefore could sue only the “governmental unit” for which he worked—the City of Navasota—and not the officer, individually. Looking at the other side of that coin, the Dallas Court of Appeals has now applied Garza to deny governmental immunity to another city, Honey Grove, regarding a claim based on the off-duty acts of one of its police officers outside his primary jurisdiction.1

Williamson, a Honey Grove police officer, was driving in or near Trenton, Texas (another Fannin County town) while off duty. In the parking lot of a “liquor store attached to a gun shop,” Williamson observed suspicious activity—including a Trenton police car with its lights activated, blocked in by other cars, with no one in sight. Because he “was concerned that a crime was being committed in the parking lot,” Williamson quickly switched on the red and blue emergency lights on his squad car and made a U-turn to go back and investigate and help the missing Trenton officer, if needed. Unfortunately, his abrupt U-turn led to an accident with other vehicles traveling on that same road. The driver and owner of one of those vehicles sued the City of Honey Grove, arguing the accident was caused by the negligent acts of Williamson while operating a motor vehicle within the scope of his employment—allegations that, if true, were sufficient to bring the claims within a statutory waiver of the city’s governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act, specifically, TCPRC § 101.021(1)(A). Honey Grove filed a plea to jurisdiction, arguing that Williamson was not acting within the scope of his employment, because he was off duty, was not being paid, was outside his jurisdiction, and had not been acting pursuant to an assignment from or under the supervision of the Honey Grove police department. The trial court granted the plea to jurisdiction and dismissed Honey Grove from the case.

The Dallas Court of Appeals reversed. Applying the freshly minted reasoning of the Supreme Court in Garza, the Court ruled that because Williamson’s actions were “triggered by reasonable suspicions” of criminal activity and potential safety concerns he was bound to address as a peace officer, he was acting within the scope of his employment. Therefore, the allegations against Honey Grove fell within the statutory waiver of governmental immunity.




1 The website of the City of Honey Grove reports how the town supposedly got its name: “According to legend, in 1836 as Davy Crockett was traveling to join the Texas Army at San Antonio, he camped in a grove just west of the present town square, on the bank of Honey Grove Creek. In letters he wrote to Tennessee, he told of the ideal place where he had camped, the ‘honey grove.’ It was so named due to the abundance of honey in the hollow trees.”

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