Court of Appeals dismisses claims that handcuffs, bench caused injuries

The First Court of Appeals reversed on April 21st the finding of a lower court and dismissed claims that a prisoner had been injured because of a Harris County deputy’s negligent use of handcuffs and a bench during her booking.

The Sheriff’s office reported that Stephanie Jo Baker was intoxicated during her arrest for possession of a controlled substance. Deputies handcuffed Baker with her hands in front of her, rather than behind her, “because she had trouble balancing herself.” During the booking process, Baker rose at least three times from the concrete bench on which she was sitting. On the third time fearing that Baker might assault him,  a deputy reportedly raised his arm in an attempt to stop her and to maintain distance from him. Due to her intoxicated state, Baker lost balance and fell down between the concrete benches.”

Generally counties are immune from lawsuits based on the negligence of employees but if the injury is caused by tangible personal property such as handcuffs or a bench, then the county could be sued. Baker claimed that because her injuries were caused by the negligent use of handcuffs and the bench, she was entitled to sue the county.

Harris County maintained that its immunity was not waived under the “condition or use of tangible property” provision of the Texas Tort Claims Act because the injuries were the result of Baker's intoxication and not because of the use of tangible personal property.

The Court of Appeals found there was no evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the deputies’ use of the handcuffs, concrete bench, and other furnishings in the booking room caused Baker’s injuries. Because the evidence failed to raise a genuine and material fact issue concerning whether the use of tangible personal property proximately caused Baker’s injuries, Harris County retains immunity from suit, and the trial court should have dismissed the claims.  The Court of Appeals rendered judgment dismmising Baker’s lawsuit against Harris County.

The case is Harris County vs. Stephanie Jo Baker.

Assistant County Attorney Keith A. Toler handled the appeal Assistant County Attorney Clinton Gambill represented the county at the trial court level.