Sun Metro buses and vans travel daily on every major road and intersection in El Paso County. Sun Metro also operates El Paso’s rapid transit system known as Brio. In 2018, Sun Metro will also operate the much-anticipated streetcars that will travel in downtown El Paso and the area around UTEP. With all of the daily travel, it is inevitable that Sun Metro buses, vans and other vehicles will become involved in accidents with members of the public. Often times, the Sun Metro driver will be at fault for causing the accident. It is important to know that the same rules that apply to most drivers and companies do not apply to Sun Metro. If you are involved in an accident with Sun Metro, there are special laws that limit the time to bring a claim and file a lawsuit. There are also caps on the amount of damages that you can recover and who you can sue to bring your claim.
Who operates Sun Metro and why does that affect my case?
Most everyone knows that Sun Metro is operated by the City of El Paso. As a governmental entity, the City of El Paso is afforded many protections that are not available to private citizens. In law school, we are taught a doctrine known as “sovereign immunity”. Essentially, sovereign immunity means that the “sovereign” (here we are speaking about the State of Texas and its political subdivisions like the City of El Paso) are absolutely immune from lawsuits. That seems unfair and it is, but the rationale is that the person that makes the rules gets to decide whether or not it sees fit to be held accountable. To combat that inequality, the state legislature can enact laws to waive the sovereign immunity in whole or in part. Some states have more liberal sovereign immunity laws while others are more conservative and protectionist. In Texas, we fall on the far-right end of the spectrum, and the State of Texas has very limited waivers of immunity.
Texas sovereign immunity law is governed by the Texas Tort Claims Act found in Chapter 101 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code. Let’s take a closer look at the waiver of immunity found in the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA).
Has sovereign immunity been waived against Sun Metro?
Yes, there is a limited waiver of sovereign immunity against Sun Metro. TTCA 101.021 provides that a governmental unit (like the City of El Paso / Sun Metro) is liable for property damage, personal injury, and death caused by the negligence of an employee acting within his scope of employment arising from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment.
The TTCA further provides that the City’s employee acting in the course and scope of his or her duties has immunity from suit through a provision known as an election of remedies. The election of remedies section found at 101.106 states that a suit brought against the governmental unit acts as a bar from bringing suit against the employee arising out of the same incident and vice versa. If the suit is brought against the employee, the employee has the right to have the suit dismissed if the claimant doesn’t substitute the governmental unit. So, there is no way to sue Sun Metro and the driver in the hopes of holding the driver personally responsible for the accident. The correct election of remedies in cases involving Sun Metro is always to only sue the City of El Paso.
Are there any special time limits to filing a claim or lawsuit against the City of El Paso / Sun Metro?
In Texas, the statute of limitations for tort (negligence) actions is two years. Most of our clients and the people we consult have a basic understanding of the statute of limitations in Texas. But you would be mistaken to believe that the two year statute of limitations is the only applicable deadline in cases involving governmental entities like Sun Metro. The TTCA has a notice provision that requires written notice to the governmental entity within six months of the accident. Section 101.101 of the TTCA states, “A governmental unit is entitled to receive notice of a claim against it under this chapter not later than six months after the day that the incident giving rise to the claim occurred.” The notice must reasonably describe the following information: (i) the damage or injury claimed; (ii) the time and place of the incident; and (iii) the incident. That same section also includes a major “gotcha” that some people and lawyers do not fully comprehend. The law says that a city’s charter or ordinance requiring notice within a charter period permitted by law are ratified and approved. This potentially means that a city can shorten further the six-month time limit for notice set forth in the TTCA.
If you guessed that El Paso has shortened the length of time to provide written notice, you would be correct. The El Paso City Charter provides that written notice must generally be provided within 90 days of the incident giving rise to the claim. The City of El Paso Charter also provides that the notice must be sworn to (verified) by the Claimant or his or her representative. Therefore, there is a good chance that if you wait more than 3 months to make a claim and provide written notice to the City of El Paso, your case will be forfeited. Once the written notice is provided, the injured person has two years to actually file the lawsuit.
There is an exception to the written notice requirement found in the TTCA if the governmental entity has “actual notice” that death has occurred or that the claimant has received some injury. There are many cases that interpret what “actual notice” entails. The general consensus is that the Texas Supreme Court is on the side of the government when arguments about how and when the government received actual notice arise. At our firm, we would never rely on the “actual notice” provision unless a potential client came to us after the end of the notice period needing assistance.
Are there any limitations on the amount of liability or caps on damages against Sun Metro / the City of El Paso?
Yes, there are severe limits on the amount of liability against Sun Metro and the City of El Paso. Section 101.023 of the TTCA provides that a municipality like Sun Metro and the City of El Paso’s liability for damages is capped at a maximum amount of $250,000 for each person and $500,000 for each occurrence for bodily injury or death and $100,000 for each occurrence for property damage. In a catastrophic injury case, these limits on damages are woefully inadequate to compensate for the injured person’s harms and losses; however, the caps are generally adequate in cases that are less serious. The TTCA also provides that an award of punitive or exemplary damages are not allowed. Hence, a person could be catastrophically injured as a result of a city employee’s gross negligence and under no circumstance could that person recover punitive damages against the city.
If you or a loved one were involved in an accident with Sun Metro or other City of El Paso vehicle, time is of the essence given the strict notice requirements. Claims under the TTCA should not be handled with the assistance of an injury lawyer that has the knowledge and experience to avoid the pitfalls found in the TTCA. Please proceed swiftly if you happen to be injured by a Sun Metro vehicle.
El Paso injury attorney S. Clark Harmonson is responsible for the contents of this blog. Please feel free to call him at (915) 584-8777 or fill out our form to discuss your claim against the City of El Paso and Sun Metro.