Friday, April 30, 2021

Texas Supreme Court Weighs In on Police Shootings (in the Private University Context)

By Jonathan Spigel

Police-related shootings have been all-too-common in the last several years and especially during the more recent pandemic.  Last year, the Texas Supreme Court had the opportunity to weigh in on the potential liability of a private university for the shooting of a university student by a university police officer in University of the Incarnate Word v. Valerie Redus.  The underlying incident involved the detainment  of a university student on campus for a suspected DWI, but the situation escalated and ultimately the student was killed by the private university’s police officer. 

 

A Question of Sovereign Immunity

The student’s parents brought a wrongful death and survival action lawsuit against both the university police officer as well as his private university employer.  While it was clear under the Texas Education Code that the individual university police officer enjoyed official immunity against the civil suit for money damages, what was not clear was whether sovereign immunity also extended to the private university, which faced separate allegations of negligence including negligent hiring, training, etc.

 

Private Universities On Notice

In its analysis, the Court discussed the historical bases for sovereign immunity – a general prohibition of lawsuits against a governmental entity – as being based on principles of preservation of public funds (against private lawsuits) as well as preservation of separation of powers.  The Court examined instances of sovereign immunity applied to traditional governmental entities and entities upon which governmental functions had been bestowed.  The Court noted that private universities are not traditional arms or extensions of government.  The Court further noted that the Education Code did not have language conferring sovereign immunity on private universities or their police departments.  The Court ultimately ruled that the private university could be sued for its own independent conduct separate and apart from that of its police officer (who was otherwise immune for his conduct in his official capacity).  Thus, private universities – just like private employers – are on notice that they can be held accountable for their employees’ conduct if they have not acted as prudent and reasonable employers in the hiring and employing process.   
 

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