Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Texas Prisoner’s State, Federal Work-Related Injury Claims Reinstated

A Texas appeals court held in this case that because a prisoner’s state and federal work-related injury claims against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) were based in law, dismissal as frivolous was improper.

State prisoner Jumeau Onnette was painting on a scaffold when he fell to the ground 25 to 30 feet below, injuring himself. Onnette had been performing the work at the instruction of prison personnel, whom he claimed ordered him onto the scaffold even though they knew it was unsafe.

Onnette sued TDCJ and five prison employees pro se under the Texas Tort Claims Act, Tex.Civ.Pract. & Rem.Code ann. § 101.001 et seq. (Vernon 1986), 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and state negligence law. Defendants moved to dismiss Onnette’s in forma pauperis suit as frivolous, and the trial court granted the motion. Onnette appealed arguing dismissal was improper.

In a summary opinion, the Court of Appeals of Texas in Houston agreed. Examining each of the three claims in turn, the Court held that all had an arguable basis in law, precluding dismissal as frivolous.

Considering Onette’s claim under the Texas Tort Claims Act, the Court first noted that under the law “A governmental unit in the state is liable for: ... (2) personal injury ... so caused by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the claimant according to Texas law.” These conditions were met in Onnette’s claim against TDCJ (a “governmental unit in the state”) in which he alleged “personal injury” caused by “a condition ... of tangible personal ... property.”

As to Onette’s federal claim, the Court reasoned that a § 1983 action must “encompass two essential elements: there must be conduct committed by a person acting under color of state law, and the conduct must have deprived the plaintiff of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States.” Because Onnette alleged he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by prison employees acting under color of state law, his § 1983 claim also had an arguable basis in law.

Turning finally to Onnette’s state negligence claim, the Court cited his “numerous allegations of negligence,” including defendants’ negligent failure to provide him with proper safety gear and ordering him to perform the work despite an unspecified physical impairment. Under Texas law, the Court noted it is well settled “that a public officer whose actions may be classified as ‘quasi-judicial’ [i.e., a prison employee] enjoys immunity from personal liability as long as he acts in good faith and within the scope of his authority.”

However, quasi-judicial immunity can be negated by demonstrating “a sufficient claim of bad faith.” Because Onnette alluded to bad faith throughout his petition by using negative terms such as “grossly negligent,” “heedless,” “callous indifference,” and “reckless disregard” to describe defendant’s actions, his negligence claim was sufficiently based in law to overcome prison employees’ pleas of quasi-judicial immunity. Reversed and remanded. See: Onnette v. Reed, 832 S.W.2d 450 (Tex.App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 1992).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Onnette v. Reed