Under the English common law, a person could not sue the state for a wrong
committed against the person. The theory was that “the King could
do no wrong,” a sweeping government immunity that was carried over
into our American legal system and continues to affect plaintiffs’
rights to this day.
In 1969, the Texas Legislature enacted the Tort Claims Act, which severely
restricts a victim’s ability to sue cities, counties and other units
of government, and caps damages in the remaining situations plaintiffs
can sue their government for bad behavior.
What is the Tort Claims Act?
The Tort Claims Act places strict limits on the damages injured citizens
can recover, even when their injuries are catastrophic. If you are maimed,
paralyzed or killed by the negligence of a VIA
bus driver, for instance, the agency’s liability is capped at $100,000 –
an unreasonable sum that fails to adequately compensate victims and their
families. It’s difficult to put a value on the life a person, but
$100,000 is certainly not enough. A serious injury could easily result
in medical bills well over $100,000, leaving no compensation for long-term
care and treatment, disfigurement, or mental anguish.
The cap not only doesn’t discourage negligent behavior, it encourages it. Many
VIA bus accidents were at least partly the result of drivers who were fatigued, texting,
and/or speeding – behavior that the government agency must be motivated
to correct. Unfortunately, the math is simple: If an agency perceives
that it’s cheaper to pay a few low penalties than to implement a
comprehensive employee training and disciplinary program, which are they
most likely to do? Especially in this era of harsh anti-government rhetoric
and radical federal and state budget cuts.
The cap on damages also emboldens these governmental units not to settle.
Why settle a case for $100,000 if that’s your maximum exposure?
A jury could award $3 million to a plaintiff and VIA would still only
be liable for $100,000. Cases settle based on risk. If there is no risk
of paying a judgment above the cap, settlement is less likely. This negative
incentive results in unnecessary costly and time-consuming litigation.
The Tort Claims Act also places other legal hurdles in the way of valid
claims. If you are injured in an accident involving a police officer,
a VIA bus driver, or the driver of a San Antonio Water System or CPS Energy
vehicle, you must give notice of the incident, the time and place, and
the damages claimed within six months of the day that the accident occurred.
If you fail to provide proper legal notice you could forfeit what would
otherwise be valid legal rights. A plaintiff injured by an individual
in the private sector, on the other hand, has up to two years to file suit.
The Tort Claims Act is almost 45 years old. It’s time for the Legislature
to review the reasonableness and adequacy of the limits it places on our
legal system. Payments for injured victims come from public funds, but
society as a whole bears the cost of irresponsible governmental behavior
– both in tangible expenses, like public support for victims who
can’t return to work or whose medical bills push them into the welfare
system, and in the loss of a government that must hold itself to standards
as high as any private company.
If you have suffered life-changing injuries through the negligence of the
City, County or VIA, together we can
hold them accountable.