On March 21, 2014, the Texas Supreme Court granted review for a case out of the Fort Worth Court of Appeals which affirmed a denial of University of Texas at Arlington's ("UTA") motion to dismiss a premises liability claim on sovereign immunity grounds including assertion of the recreational use statute.
Univ. of Texas at Arlington v. Williams, No. 02-12-00425-CV, 2013 WL 1234878 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth Mar. 28, 2013, pet. granted) (mem. op.).
The plaintiffs were attending their daughter's high school soccer game at UTA's soccer stadium. After the game, the mother was leaning against a gate at the bottom of the stadium stairs when the padlock securing the chain around the gate broke and the mother fell five feet to the ground and was injured. The mother sued UTA for her injuries and her spouse brought a claim for loss of consortium.
The Law and Holding:
Since UTA is a public university, it is entitled to sovereign immunity for all tort claims except those specifically waived by the Texas legislature. A premises defect claim is one type of claim for which the legislature has provided a waiver of immunity. This waiver is tempered by the recreational use statute which provides that if an owner of real property-including a governmental unit-gives permission to another to enter the premises for recreation, the owner owes to that person only the duty owed to trespassers, which is a very limited duty. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem.Code Ann. §§ 75.002(c), 75.003 (West 2011).
The court held, however, that the recreational use statute did not apply in this case, noting, "Neither spectating at a sporting event nor exiting the premises after spectating is like the activities listed as recreation under the recreational use statute."
As it stands now, this case has significantly broadened the premises liability exception to sovereign immunity, which will likely expose more governmental bodies to civil liability. It still remains to be seen how the Texas Supreme Court will rule on this issue, but for now, be aware of any cases in which it may be proper to designate a governmental unit as a responsible party. Your success on those claims may be more likely than you think.