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The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a case that may determine whether the state government can be held liable for wrecks that occur on Texas’ longest bridge — a debate that is especially relevant after eight people died on that same causeway last month. The case, County of Cameron and Texas Department of Transportation v. Charlene Mills Brown, involves a 1996 car wreck on the Queen Isabella Causeway that connects mainland Texas to South Padre Island. Two men, Nolan Brown and Jeff Farrington, were driving on the 2.4-mile bridge at 3 a.m. when their car turned over. Farrington, the passenger, exited the vehicle safely. But as Brown attempted to get out from the driver’s side, another car stuck the vehicle, killing Brown, according to court briefs. Lawyers representing Brown’s survivors filed suit in 1997 alleging the government was at fault because the lighting it installed on the bridge was not maintained properly. Portions of the bridge were illuminated, but the section where the accident occurred allegedly was not, according to court briefs. Yet lawyers for TxDOT and Cameron County, which maintain the bridge, allege that the government has no duty to protect motorists from the “open, obvious and known danger of darkness on a bridge.” A state district judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ case in 1998 by finding that the government had sovereign immunity. But Corpus Christi, Texas’ 13th Court of Appeals overturned that decision last year. Lawyers on both sides of the case say the decision in Brown may impact whether the state could be held liable for the deaths of eight people whose cars plunged from the same causeway on Sept. 15, 2001. In that accident, a boat pulling barges allegedly missed the channel under the bridge and struck support pillars, causing a 240-foot-wide gap in the bridge. One state supreme court justice even alluded to the recent accident during arguments in Brown. David Bright, a lawyer with Corpus Christi’s Watts & Heard who represents the plaintiffs in Brown, says, “The recent tragedy also involves a private entity [the owners of the boat that allegedly caused the collapse].” Watts & Heard lawyers also represent the families of four people who died in the recent accident. “But sure, it has serious implications for the state and Cameron County.” George C. Kraehe, a lawyer with Brownsville, Texas’ Willette & Guerra who represents Cameron County in Brown, believes the same issues could arise in potential suits filed in connection with the Sept. 15 accident, including allegations that improper lighting caused the boat to hit the bridge. SKEPTICAL OF THE STATE On Oct. 3, the supreme court traveled to Edinburg, Texas, marking the seventh time the court heard oral arguments outside of Austin, and the first time the court did so in the Rio Grande Valley. The venue was UT-Pan American University, an institution attended by Chief Justice Tom Phillips’ father in the 1930s. Hundreds of students filed into the university’s student union theater to watch as the court heard arguments in Brown and in Texas State Bank v. Vargas, a trust case. Both cases were originally heard in trial courts in the Valley. While government lawyers framed their case in Brown by arguing that Texas can’t protect its citizens from the dark, several justices immediately jumped on the premise as overly simple. “This is not just about darkness of night under a wide open space,” Justice Harriet O’Neill said in questioning Kraehe. “It’s about lighting.” O’Neill even drew a hypothetical scenario involving a boat slamming into a bridge in which the boat crew failed to see a properly lit bridge. If the state waived its immunity in such a case, O’Neill asked, wouldn’t the state do the same in a case involving a car? “I have a very difficult time drawing that situation [where] there would be waiver in the boat situation and not the car situation,” O’Neill said. The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the state would not be liable if it installed no lights on the bridge. But once the government put lights on the bridge, it is required to maintain them to ensure that light failures do not interfere with a driver’s vision and safety, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued. Yet Kraehe and Susan Desmarais Bonnen, an assistant attorney general representing the Texas Department of Transportation, stood their ground, stating that lighting did not present a dangerous condition for which the state could be held liable. “If that is a dangerous condition, everywhere a street light is out there will be a cause of action,” Bonnen said. That argument frustrated Justice Nathan Hecht. “That’s what I can’t understand. If you’re standing there in the dark and someone comes along and hits you, how can that not be a dangerous condition?” Hecht asked the government lawyers. “How can everybody but the state not know that?” Kraehe also argued that there’s nothing in state law that requires the government to provide street lights. Therefore, holding the state liable for a lack of lighting would be an undue burden on the government, he said. “In other words, there will be road signs going up all across the state of Texas … saying, ‘Warning: Darkness Ahead,’ ” Kraehe said. The justices did seem concerned that finding the state liable in Brown could lead to a flood of suits against the state over improper street lighting. “How do you decide on the pleading when lights are out if there’s liability?” asked Justice Priscilla Owen. “Where do we draw a line?” Bright doubted that would be a problem. “I don’t think there will be a flood of litigation because it would be very hard to prove that one light out caused a dangerous situation,” Bright said. “I think the duty would be on the plaintiff to prove there was a dangerous situation.” Hecht replied: “But you’d have to try that case.”

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