After an incident on one of Houston ISD’s campuses caused a 5-year-old’s jaw to be broken by campus administrators, the boy’s father filed suit against the district. But, if HISD has its way, they’ll be able to claim immunity from suit through a legal loophole.

Sovereign immunity is a doctrine that provides protection from litigation for government entities and employees. The Texas Tort Claims Act, passed in 1969, waives this immunity for entities that cause injury while performing a governmental duty.

However, the law only waives immunity when public employees cause property damage, personal injury, or death through the operation, or use of a vehicle or other motorized equipment.

HISD is interpreting that to mean they would only be liable for the 5-year-old’s injuries if they were incurred on a school bus. Because the injuries occurred in the school building, the district is claiming immunity from suit.

To protect his privacy, the boy is identified by his initials as C.B.D.

The district originally sought to have the case dismissed saying, “C.B.D. was escorted by school staff to the principal’s office. At some point during this time frame, C.B.D. received a bone fracture to his jaw, necessitating the extraction of two teeth later the same day… During the discussion that followed, Krystal Perkins stated that her elbow had come into contact with C.B.D.’s face in the hallway.”

After the incident, the boy’s father, Houston attorney Al Durrell, was called to Wilson Montessori School. Although he repeatedly demanded answers and documentation of what happened, he has yet to receive it.

Durrell filed a personal injury lawsuit because the district initially refused to provide videos of the incident and refused to make a district representative available to testify about it. Other than three photographs, no objective evidence has been provided. After a court compelled the district to turn over video of the incident, they alleged it was mistakenly written over.

HISD’s response to the suit was to claim sovereign immunity.

“HISD is entitled to sovereign immunity from any lawsuit involving an injury event due to alleged activities on school owned premises, not the actual operation of a school owned vehicle,” the district stated in its plea.

Essentially the district’s attorneys are saying that they are immune from any repercussions – even from being forced to provide additional information – as long as an incident takes place on campus and not on a motor vehicle.

So, while HISD has admitted guilt and claimed responsibility for the C.B.D.’s injuries, they may avoid accountability because of the location of the incident.

Durrell was originally seeking the termination of employees involved, but the district refused. He told the Press that he now he wants re-training, additional staff at the school equipped to deal with behavioral issues, payment for medical expenses and therapy, pain and suffering, and punitive damages. C.B.D. is no longer enrolled in HISD.

The court originally ruled against HISD by granting discovery, compelling them to appear in court, and denying their request for dismissal. HISD has now exercised its right of appeal and the 14th Court of Appeals is now reviewing the case.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.