Should a private university be given the same immunity from personal lawsuits simply because its campus police force functions like any other police force in the state?
That’s the question that the Texas Supreme Court was recently asked to decide. Their decision is still pending.
The issue arises over the actions of an on-duty campus police officer, working for the University of the Incarnate Word back in 2013. The officer was several blocks off-campus when he pulled over a student on suspicion of drunk driving. The officer’s body mic indicates that the student was belligerent and non-cooperative. Eventually, there was a fight, and the student ended up shot five times at close range. An autopsy revealed that he was, in fact, heavily intoxicated.
While the officer was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, he’s since resigned his post at UIW. The family of the slain student is pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the University. As the officer’s employer, UIW would have liability for any negligent acts by the officer. As a practical matter, UIW would also be in a better position than a private individual to pay any jury award for the wrongful death if the lawsuit is successful.
UIW’s attorneys have argued that even though it is a private university, it should be afforded protection under the Texas Tort Claims Act in issues involving its police force. The Texas Tort Claims Act was designed to limit the ability of individuals to go after the “deep pockets” of government agencies.
The Act sharply limits when a lawsuit can be brought against a governmental unit. The governmental unit is only liable if the employee was both acting within the scope of his or her employment and would have been found liable as a private individual. It essentially makes claims directly against the state as the employer non-existent, and limits how much can be recovered to $250,000 per person.
The plaintiff’s attorneys have called this a delaying activity, saying that the University can’t call itself a private University on one hand and claim the protection afforded state agencies with the other. So far, lower courts have sided with the plaintiffs, and UIW’s attempts to have the case dismissed have failed.
The decision in this case could affect many future wrongful death claims by families whose loved ones die due to a campus officer’s negligence, making it an important case to watch.
Source: www.ksat.com, “Wrongful death case of 23-year-old UIW student goes before Texas Supreme Court,” KSAT Web Staff, Dec. 07, 2016