City of Corsicana v. Stewart
In City of Corsicana v. Stewart, 249 S.W.3d 412 (Tex. 2008), two children drowned when the car they were in was swept away by flooding at a low-water crossing during a heavy rainstorm.
The plaintiffs claimed the City of Corsicana's knowledge that the crossing tended to flood during heavy rains, combined with knowledge that it was raining hard on the night of the incident, "supports the inference that the City of Corsicana actually knew the crossing was flooded at the time of the accident." Id. at 414.
The City of Corsicana offered evidence that the first time it learned that a dangerous condition existed on the day of the incident was when the claimant called 911 to report the problem, which was "after the dangerous condition had arisen." Id.
The supreme court concluded: "It is undisputed that no direct evidence was offered that the City knew a dangerous condition existed prior to the accident." Id.
Further, evidence that there was inclement weather in the vicinity, a road one mile upstream was closed due to flooding, the City knew the crossing flooded during heavy rains, and the City was aware of heavy rains and flooding after the accident and any inference arising from that evidence, did not "raise a fact question on the City of Corsicana's actual knowledge that a dangerous condition existed at or near the crossing at the time of the accident." Stewart, 249 S.W.3d at 415.
Stewart's car stalled while he attempted to cross a low-water crossing. Id.
When he left his children in the car and went away to seek help, the water swept the car away, and the children drowned. Id.
The issue before the supreme court was whether Stewart had presented evidence that created a genuine factual dispute regarding the city's actual knowledge of a dangerous condition. Id.
The court held that the he had not done so, stating,
The court of appeals held that in this case, actual knowledge could be inferred from circumstantial evidence including:
(1) testimony . . . that the crossing "sometimes" flooded during heavy rains, that the crossing was designed to allow water to flow over it during heavy rains, and that the City closed the crossing on several prior occasions due to flooding;
(2) a study commissioned by the City several years prior to the accident identifying the crossing as vulnerable to future flooding;
(3) a former City Council member's testimony that she informed City personnel of "dangerous conditions" at the crossing during "light and heavy rains";
(4) the National Weather Service's issuance of four pertinent severe weather warnings on the afternoon and night preceding the accident;
(5) evidence that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) closed a road one mile upstream from the crossing several hours prior to the accident due to flooding . . . .
. . . In addition to the evidence relied on by the court of appeals, Plaintiffs point to statements in the responding officer's report at the evidentiary hearing that the rain was intense as he drove to assist Stewart, that local dispatch was inundated with calls for help from stranded motorists and flooded homeowners, and that many officers could not reach those in need due to high water. Plaintiffs further argue that according to City procedures, City officials are supposed to monitor areas likely to flood when flooding is anticipated.
It is undisputed that no direct evidence was offered that the City knew the crossing was flooded prior to the accident. Actual knowledge requires knowledge that the dangerous condition existed at the time of the accident, as opposed to constructive knowledge which can be established by facts or inferences that a dangerous condition could develop over time. Here, the Legislature required that the City actually know that the crossing was flooded at the time of the accident. . . .
. . . The evidence presented in this case does not reasonably support the inference that the City actually knew the crossing was flooded on the night of the accident. Plaintiffs' evidence indicates that there was inclement weather in the vicinity of Corsicana on the night of the accident, that a road one mile upstream was closed due to flooding, that the City knew the crossing tended to flood during heavy rains, and that the City was aware of heavy rains and flooding after the accident occurred. Neither this evidence nor the inferences arising therefrom raise a fact question on the City's actual knowledge that a dangerous condition existed at or near the crossing at the time of the accident. (Id. at 414-15.)