Dallas County Mental Health and Mental Retardation v. Bossley – Case Brief Summary (Texas)

In Dallas County Mental Health & Mental Retardation v. Bossley, 968 S.W.2d 339 (Tex. 1998), a mental pa-tient escaped through unlocked doors from a mental hospital and committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a truck, and his parents sued, claiming that the patient's death was caused by the unlocked doors, and thus Dallas County MHMR waived its liability under section 101.021(2). Id. at 340-41.

Before he could be apprehended, the patient leaped in front of a moving truck. Id. at 341.

In holding that the condition of the doors was not a proximate cause of the patient's death, the supreme court explained, "Although the patient's escape through the unlocked doors was part of a sequence of events that ended in his suicide, the use and condition of the doors were too attenuated from his death to be said to have caused it. . . . His death was distant geographically, temporally, and causally from the doors." Id. at 343.

According to the court, "Property does not cause injury if it does no more than furnish the condition that makes the injury possible." Id.

The supreme court held that:

"Section 101.021(2) states that for immunity to be waived, personal injury or death must be proxi-mately caused by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property. The requirement of causa-tion is more than mere involvement, although exactly how much more has been difficult for courts to define. If only involvement were required, the waiver of immunity would be virtually unlimited, since few injuries do not somehow involve tangible personal or real property. Requiring only that a condition or use of the property be involved would conflict with the TTCA's basic purpose of waiving immunity only to a limited degree." Id. at 342-43.

The court also held that "property does not cause injury if it does no more than furnish the condition that makes the injury possible." Id. at 343.

The court concluded that while the unlocked doors permitted the patient's escape, they did not cause his death, and thus the nexus between the use or condition of the doors and the patient's death was too attenu-ated to constitute a waiver of immunity. Id.

During the subsequent pursuit by mental health facility personnel and police, the patient leaped into the path of a truck and was killed. The patient's estate and his parents sued the county mental health facility and cer-tain of its employees.

In response to the defendants' motion for summary judgment based on immunity grounds, the plaintiffs alleged that their claims came within the statutory waiver of immunity under Section 101.021(2) of the Tort Claims Act. Bossley, 968 S.W.2d at 341.

Specifically, they alleged that their son's death was caused by the employee unlocking the outer door without first locking the inner door or checking on the patient's whereabouts. Id.

The trial court granted the motion. Id. The Dallas Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment, finding that the involvement of some condition or use of tangible property was sufficient to waive immunity under Section 101.021(2). Id. citing Bossley v. Dallas County Mental Health and Mental Retardation, 934 S.W.2d 689, 695 (Tex.App.--Dallas 1995).

The Supreme Court reversed the intermediate court because the requirement of causation is more than mere involvement of tangible personal or real property. Bossley, 968 S.W.2d at 343.

Property does not cause injury if it does no more than furnish the condition that makes the injury possible. Id.

The Court noted that although the patient's escape through the unlocked doors was part of a sequence of events that ended in his suicide, the use and condition of the doors were too distant geographically, tempo-rally, and causally from the patient's death to be said to have caused it. Id.

Finally, the Court pointed out that the real substance of the plaintiffs' complaint was that the patient's death was caused not by the condition or use of property, but by the failure of the county mental hospital staff to restrain him once they learned he was suicidal. Id.

The Court concluded the causation requirement was not met. 968 S.W.2d at 343.

After a suicide attempt, Roger Bossley was committed to Parkland Hospital and later Hillside Treatment Center. For two weeks he seemed to be recovering from his severe depression when, in reaction to a com-ment by a counselor, he asked another patient where he could get a gun to kill himself. He was ordered to be returned to the more restrictive environment of Parkland. Because patients often try to elope to avoid transfer, the front door was locked, although the self-locking glass doors just inside the front door were left open. Id. at 340-41.

The next day, a staff person noticed Roger at the telephone near the doors as she left. She passed through the open glass doors, looked around, and seeing no one, opened the front door. As she did, Roger rushed from behind, pushed her aside, and fled.

He fled to Interstate 30, where he attempted to hitchhike from both sides of the freeway. When approached by Hillside personnel and police, he leaped into the path of an oncoming truck and was killed. Id. This oc-curred about a half mile from the facility and in a "fast-paced and continuous sequence." Id. at 345.

The court stated the statute requires that the injury or death must be "proximately caused" by the condition or use of tangible property. Id. at 343. Property does not cause injury if it does no more than furnish the condition that makes the injury possible." Id. (citing Union Pump Co. v. Allbritton, 898 S.W.2d 773, 776, 38 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 603 (Tex. 1995)).

The court concluded, "Although Roger's escape through the unlocked doors was part of a sequence of events that ended in his suicide, the use and condition of the doors were too attenuated from Roger's death to be said to have caused it." Id.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court distinguished from the "use" deemed to have waived immunity in McGuire, when a patient was put into a bed without rails.

The Bossley court reasoned that the injury in McGuire was "immediate and directly related to" the absence of bedrails, but that "Roger's death was distant geographically, temporally, and causally from the open doors at Hillside." Id.

Thus in Bossley, the Court determined, for the purposes of causation, the death occurring within a half mile and shortly after the escape was both temporally and geographically distant.

In Dallas County Mental Health and Mental Retardation v. Bossley, the plaintiffs alleged that a mental health facility was negligent in failing to prevent a suicidal patient from escaping and committing suicide. 968 S.W.2d at 340-41.

According to the plaintiffs, the mental health facility was negligent in unlocking an outer door without deter-mining whether the patient was nearby and for failing to lock an inner door. See Bossley, 968 S.W.2d at 343.

The court rejected the plaintiffs' claims holding that neither act or omission could be said to have caused the patient's suicide. See id.

The Court held that while the failure to keep the doors locked permitted the patient to escape, it did not cause his death. See id.

After the patient escaped, he ran half a mile and then attempted to hitchhike on both sides of the freeway. See id.

Only when he was about to be apprehended by staff from the facility did he leap in front of an oncoming truck. See id.

The court reasoned that:

Although Roger's escape through the unlocked doors was part of a sequence of events that ended in his suicide, the use and condition of the doors were too attenuated from Roger's death to be said to have caused it. Id.

In sum, the plaintiffs sued a governmental unit and its employees, and the trial court granted the govern-mental unit's plea to the jurisdiction based on governmental immunity. Bossley, 968 S.W.2d at 341.

On appeal, the government employees argued that the dismissal of the claims against their employer ren-dered them immune from suit under the prior version of Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code section 101.106. Id.

In response, the plaintiffs argued that the prior version of 101.106 required a "judgment against, or settle-ment with" the employer, and that a dismissal on a plea to the jurisdiction did not bar claims against the em-ployees. Id. at 343.

In construing that statute, however, the court concluded that "the immunity conveyed to a governmental unit's employees by prior Section 101.106 is triggered by any judgment in an action against a governmental unit, including a judgment in favor of the governmental unit," and that claims against the employees were barred because the claims against the employer were dismissed on its plea to the jurisdiction. Id.