Governmental Tort Liability, Governmental Immunity, Texas

View from under the Texas State Capitol DomeGovernmental entities are generally shielded from liability by “sovereign immunity”.  In order to hold a protected governmental entity accountable, a waiver of this immunity is necessary.  This post deals with governmental tort liability.  A separate analysis must be done for governmental contractual liability.

Texas Tort Claims Act

In Texas, Sec. 101.02 of the The Texas Tort Claims Act provides a waiver and permission to sue Texas Governmental units –  the State of Texas and all the several agencies of government that collectively constitute the government of Texas as well as the political subdivisions of Texas.  However, the waiver is not unlimited:

Sec. 101.021.  GOVERNMENTAL LIABILITY. A governmental unit in the state is liable for:

(1)  property damage, personal injury, and death proximately caused by the wrongful act or omission or the negligence of an employee acting within his scope of employment if:

(A)  the property damage, personal injury, or death arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment; and

(B)  the employee would be personally liable to the claimant according to Texas law; and

(2)  personal injury and death so caused by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the claimant according to Texas law.

As you can see, the waiver is generally limited to the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment and a condition or use of tangible personal or real property.

Furthermore, Section 101.056 DISCRETIONARY POWERS preserves the governmental unit’s immunity for the performance or non-performance of an act left to the discretion of the governmental unit.

The Supreme Court of Texas has determined that “[a]n act is discretionary if it requires exercising judgment and the law does not mandate performing the act with such precision that nothing is left to discretion or judgment.” State v. Rodriguez, 985 S.W.2d 83, 85 (Tex. 1999) (citing City of Lancaster v. Chambers, 883 S.W.2d 650, 654 (Tex. 1994)). Thus, “[a] distinction is drawn between the negligent formulation of policy, for which sovereign immunity is preserved, and the negligent implementation of policy, for which immunity is waived.”Stephen F. Austin State Univ. v. Flynn, 228 S.W.3d 653, 657 (Tex. 2007).

If the Texas Tort Claims Act applies and provides a waiver of immunity,  Sec. 101.023 of the Act limits the amount of recovery in those situations that fall within the waiver.

The Act must be studied with an eye toward the type of governmental entity that caused the harm.  For example,  Sec. 101.051 limits the waiver with regard to school districts or junior college districts to motor vehicles.

Notice Requirements

It is very important to pay attention to the Notice requirements in Sec. 101.101 of the Act:

NOTICE. (a) 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:

(1)  the damage or injury claimed;

(2)  the time and place of the incident; and

(3)  the incident.

(b)  A city’s charter and ordinance provisions requiring notice within a charter period permitted by law are ratified and approved.

(c)  The notice requirements provided or ratified and approved by Subsections (a) and (b) do not apply if the governmental unit has actual notice that death has occurred, that the claimant has received some injury, or that the claimant’s property has been damaged.

One cannot assume that the Notice must be sent within six months.  There may be a city charter and ordinance requiring notice in a shorter time.  

In summary, the are limited situations where the Texas Tort Claims Act waives immunity, the Act must be examined closely for a particular fact scenario and special care must be taken to satisfy the Notice requirements.

It should also be noted that there are also other limited waivers of sovereign immunity.  For example, Sec. 180.006.  SOVEREIGN OR GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITY WAIVED FOR CERTAIN CLAIMS provides a waiver for the back pay of firefighters and police officers.


Municipalities fall within the Texas Tort Claims Act, but have their own considerations.  I published an entire law review article on this subject while in law school, and it is a difficult subject to limit to a post.  However, the article can be found at Comment,  “Texas Municipal Liability: An Examination of the State and Federal Causes of Action,” 40 Baylor Law Review 595, 1988.

Sec. 101.0215 of the The Texas Tort Claims Act deals specifically with the liability of municipalities. Sec. 101.0215.  LIABILITY OF A MUNICIPALITY separates the functions of a municipality into its governmental functions and its proprietary functions.  The governmental functions are those “enjoined on a municipality by law and are given it by the state as part of the state’s sovereignty…” and are covered by the Act.  On the other hand, proprietary functions,  those functions that a municipality may, in its discretion, perform in the interest of the inhabitants of the municipality, are not covered by the Act; and a municipality is not immune from suit for torts committed in the performance of its proprietary functions. See Sec. 101.0215(b) .

Federal Cause of Action

42 U.S.Code §1983

Municipalities are also potentially liable for the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution – constitutional torts.  42 U.S.Code §1983  provides:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory … subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress…

In Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658 (1978), the United States Supreme Court held that a municipal entity is a “person” under §1983  and is liable under §1983 if a municipal “policy or custom” causes a plaintiff to be deprived of a federal right.  In so holding,  the Supreme Court held that a municipality can not be held liable under §1983 solely because it employs a tortfeasor.

As you can see, the analysis of whether a governmental entity has tort liability under a particular set of facts can be very involved and sometimes difficult.  An attorney with experience in governmental liability should be contacted as soon a practical to begin the analysis.

Injury Lawyer

We have experience with governmental liability cases, and if you or your family member has been seriously injured or killed by a governmental entity and need a Texas attorney, please do not hesitate to give East Texas Attorney, Chris JonesBoard Certified Personal Injury Trial Law, a call at 903-236-4990 for a free initial consultation or send us a message at Contact Us.

About Chris Jones

Chris Jones is a Personal Injury lawyer and Wrongful Death lawyer with over 27 years of experience. Chris Jones is Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

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