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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Texas Supreme Court rules university is a governmental unit in wrongful death case

By David Hutton | May 30, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (Legal Newsline) – The Texas Supreme Court has issued a ruling regarding the University of the Incarnate Word, ruling that when it comes to law enforcement, it is a governmental unit because it has its own campus police force.

Justice John P. Devine wrote the opinion, released May 12, for the Texas Supreme Court after an appeals court had declined to make a ruling on the request by the university to determine that the actions of its police department meet the standards of sovereign immunity. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth District concluded that the university is not a governmental unit and dismissed the appeal.

The case stems from the 2013 death of Cameron Redus, a Baytown, Texas, man who was shot and killed by a police officer employed by the San Antonio university.

“Because we conclude that the university is a governmental unit for purposes of this interlocutory appeal, we reverse and remand,” Devine wrote.

The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) is a private university that maintains a campus police department. The Texas State Legislature has authorized private institutions of higher education to employ and commission peace officers and operate police departments.

This case arises from a UIW officer's use of deadly force following a traffic stop that ended with Redus’ shooting death.

A UIW student, Redus was pulled over by campus police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

In the wake of their son’s death, Redus’ parents sued the university and the officer. UIW raised governmental immunity as a defense in its answer and later asked the trial court to dismiss the suit in a plea to the jurisdiction. The trial court denied the plea, and UIW took an interlocutory appeal under section 51.014(a)(8) of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code.

“That provision authorizes an interlocutory appeal from an order granting or denying a governmental unit’s plea to the jurisdiction,” Devine wrote. “Although UIW does not claim to be a governmental unit generally, it contends it is a governmental unit when defending the actions of its police department.”

However, the appeals court disagreed with UIW’s assertion and dismissed the appeal, and the Texas Supreme Court agreed to hear UIW’s petition for review.  

In its plea in the case, UIW referenced the Tort Claims Act for its definition of “governmental unit.”

It cited a section that defines it as “any other institution, agency, or organ of government the status and authority of which are derived from the Constitution of Texas or from laws passed by the legislature under the Constitution.”

In its appeal, UIW concedes that, as a private university, it is not generally a governmental unit. However, UIW argues that a private entity can be a governmental unit for certain purposes and that it is a governmental unit when defending lawsuits arising from its law-enforcement function.

The Redus family responded that UIW is a private institution and that no state law makes UIW a part of the government. Rather, the statute authorizing UIW to commission and employ peace officers “requires that [UIW] be a private or independent institution.”

“Although private institutions are not commonly understood to be a part ‘of government,’ we have held that a private institution can be a governmental unit,” Devine wrote.

Ultimately, the Texas Legislature has authorized UIW to enforce state and local law using the same resource municipalities and the state use to enforce law: commissioned peace officers. UIW’s officers also have the same powers, privileges, and immunities as other peace officers.

“Because law enforcement is uniquely governmental, the function the Legislature has authorized UIW to perform and the way the Legislature has authorized UIW to perform it strongly indicate that UIW is a governmental unit as to that function,” Devine wrote. “We accordingly conclude that UIW is a governmental unit for purposes of law enforcement and that UIW is therefore entitled to pursue an interlocutory appeal under section 51.014(a)(8) of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code.”

As the court did in the LTTS Charter School case, it left undecided the separate issue of whether UIW is immune from suit.

“The issue we decide is one of appellate jurisdiction only: Did the court of appeals have jurisdiction to consider UIW’s interlocutory appeal? It did,” Devine concluded. “Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals’ judgment and remand for it to resolve UIW’s interlocutory appeal.”

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Texas Supreme Court University of The Incarnate Word