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Woman's death by inmate-driven truck sparks suit against state

"You can't fight City Hall." That's a phrase most Texas readers will recognize. The idea it conveys is that if individuals in a particular jurisdiction are somehow hurt by the actions of government or one of its agents that they have no real way to recover for the losses they suffer.

The doctrine reflected by the statement is sovereign immunity. It's a tenet that traces its roots back to English common law when it was believed that the sovereign could do no wrong. Sovereign immunity is a theory that continues to be applied even today in our democracy, but what readers may not know is that there are exceptions to the rule.

Specifically in Texas, sovereign immunity is waived in instances that are spelled out by the statute. For example, if an employee of a government is negligent or commits some wrongful act while driving a motor vehicle or operating motorized equipment in the course of his or her job, liability may attach. In general, if a private person would be liable for injury or wrongful death under the same circumstances, the government and the employee responsible could be held liable, too.

The right to seek compensation from government in such cases is something a Mexia woman's family is exercising now. She was killed in a head-on truck accident last month. A wrongful death suit filed on her behalf earlier this month names the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as the defendant and seeks damages amounting to more than $1 million.

According to the suit, the woman was driving in one direction on a two-lane highway when an 18-wheeleer from a state prison truck convoy pulled into her lane to pass another vehicle, causing the crash. The accident happened along a stretch of road that was designated as a no-passing zone.

In addition to seeking compensation for the victim's survivors, attorneys for the family say they will try to get the state to stop the practice of allowing incarcerated prisoners to get behind the wheel while they are serving their sentences.

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