A teacher sued a city after she fell and injured herself during convocation. The city argued that the case should be dismissed, and the trial court denied that request. The city filed an appeal, arguing that she could not sue the city because it was immune and that the teacher had failed to produce enough evidence to overcome the immunity.
In considering the appeal, the court of appeals reviewed the facts of the case. The school district rented a local arena to hold its annual convocation. Every employee in the district was required to attend the event. Convocation was not open to the public, and security was provided by the district's police department and arena personnel. The arena premises included surrounding parking lots and a sidewalk that abuts the arena and leads to the main entrance. A person attending an event at the arena must cross this sidewalk to enter the facility. The teacher parked her car in the arena parking lot and was walking on the sidewalk when she stepped in a pothole, causing her to trip and fall and injure her knee.
The city argued that it was immune from suit because it is a governmental agency. However, there are some exceptions to that immunity that the teacher argued apply in this case. First, the teacher argued that there was an unreasonably dangerous condition on the property. Second, she argued that she was invited onto the property.
Under Texas law, if a person pays for use of premises, they gain the status of an "invitee." A landowner owes an invitee a duty to make safe or warn against any concealed, unreasonably dangerous conditions of which the landowner is, or reasonably should be, aware but the invitee is not. Therefore, if the teacher had evidence that she was an invitee and was injured due to an unreasonably dangerous condition on the property, she could sue the city for her injury.
The court of appeals was required to decide whether enough potential evidence existed to permit the case to go to trial. In doing so, it first looked at whether the pothole the teacher tripped over was potentially an unreasonably dangerous condition. In determining whether a condition is unreasonably dangerous, the court was required to examine several factors including whether the relevant condition was clearly marked, its size, whether it had previously caused injuries or generated complaints, whether it substantially differed from conditions in the same class of objects, and whether it was naturally occurring.
In this case, the city did not provide much information about the pothole, merely providing a picture of it to the court. Based on the quality and angle of the image, it was difficult to discern any details about the pothole, although it appeared that the connection point was below the surface of the sidewalk, creating a lip around the edge of the connection point. There also appeared to be at least one protruding bolt.
The city's engineer testified that he had no personal knowledge of anyone tripping over the pothole prior to that incident. However, the city failed to place that statement in context, such as when the arena was built, how long the pothole had been there, or how many people may have walked on that portion of the sidewalk without incident. Based on the lack of information, the court concluded that the city had failed to prove as a matter of law that the pothole was not unreasonably dangerous.
Next, the court turned to the question of whether the teacher was an "invitee." In this case, the district rented the arena for the express purpose of hosting a private event for its employees. Without the rental fee paid by the district, its employees, including the teacher, would not have been allowed to enter the arena.
The convocation was not open to the public and the only people on the premises were district employees, district police officers and arena personnel. Some of these police officers, who were there to provide security for the event, were positioned in the arena parking lots. Therefore, the teacher was found to have introduced enough evidence to show that she may have had invitee status at the time of her injury.
The court of appeals agreed with the trial court that there was enough evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the pothole was an unreasonably dangerous condition and that the teacher was an invitee at the time of her injury. Therefore, the case could proceed to trial.