Barron Adler Attorneys Win Landowner Victory at the Texas Supreme Court

May 21, 2024

Last week, the Texas Supreme Court handed down a unanimous opinion in favor of the landowner in Texas Department of Transportation v. Self, a case filed by Barron Adler attorneys Nick Laurent and Blaire Knox. The case involved a contractor and third-party subcontractors hired by TxDOT who removed trees outside TxDOT’s right-of-way easement as part of a roadway maintenance project. 

The landowner whose trees were removed sued TxDOT for the trees that were taken, and TxDOT sought to dismiss his claims at the trial court through a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing TxDOT cannot be sued because it is a governmental entity. The trial court denied TxDOT’s plea to the jurisdiction, and TxDOT appealed to the Fort Worth Court of Appeals. The Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, then both parties sought review in the Supreme Court of Texas.  

The Supreme Court of Texas addressed two primary issues in the opinion. First, the Court addressed whether the direction of TxDOT to cut down the tree qualified as TxDOT’s “operation or use” of the equipment used to cut down trees, which would be required to avoid sovereign immunity as to TxDOT under the landowner’s Texas Tort of Claims Act claim. The Court ultimately concluded that TxDOT’s direction did not meet the “operation or use” standard because TxDOT’s contractor directed its subcontractor to cut down the trees.  

Next, the Court addressed the landowner’s inverse condemnation claim. Barron Adler attorneys argued that TxDOT had the necessary intent to establish an inverse condemnation claim because TxDOT knew that the trees it ordered be removed would be removed, regardless of whether TxDOT knew the trees were or were not on private property. TxDOT argued it did not know the trees were not in the public right-of-way. As a result, TxDOT could not be sued for a taking. The Court rejected this argument, stating:

“Here, TxDOT employees intended to physically destroy the trees for a public use and directly ordered TxDOT’s agents to cut them down, which they did. This intentional government conduct was not the cause of an eventual taking—it was the taking…  [R]equiring property owners to show that the government subjectively believed it had no right to take their property would eviscerate our constitutional bulwark against uncompensated takings… We conclude that the government may not avoid paying compensation for intentionally taking, damaging, destroying, or appropriating private property for public use by showing that it acted under the incorrect impression that it had a legal right to do so.”

The Court’s decision is significant because it shows that the Government’s intent doesn’t decide the outcome. If the Government intends some act that causes a taking of private property for a public use, even if the Government did not know it was taking private property, it must compensate the landowner. 

Andrew York argued the case before the Court, and Blaire Knox was heavily involved in researching and briefing. Congratulations to the entire Barron Adler team on this significant win! This victory will be instrumental for similar cases in the future.

Learn about the case on our previous blog Andrew York Presents Arguments to Texas Supreme Court, and read the full opinion here.