Appeals court mulls UIW immunity claim in student’s death
Attorneys for the University of the Incarnate Word were back in court Thursday, reiterating the private university’s argument that immunity from liability enjoyed by police departments should protect it from a lawsuit stemming from the fatal shooting of one of its students.
A three-judge panel of the Fourth Court of Appeals heard the arguments but made no immediate ruling on the claim, the university’s first line of defense in a lawsuit brought by the family of Cameron Redus, a 23-year-old senior who was killed by a campus police officer in 2013.
The state appeals court had previously rejected the claim that UIW’s police department was a public agency but had been overruled by the Texas Supreme Court, which sent the case back for a decision on whether the designation was enough to grant the university immunity in the case.
The Legislature granted UIW the privilege of commissioning its own law enforcement agency and it performs a “uniquely government function,” so it makes no sense to exclude the campus police from immunity, UIW attorney Amy Warr told the judges Thursday
Exposing such police forces to lawsuits could have a chilling effect, potentially resulting in the disbandment of university law enforcement agencies across the state, she said.
“If they alone are denied immunity among all other law enforcement agencies of the state, and they’re subject to litigation and judgments, there’s a huge financial disincentive to continue operations,” Warr said.
The burden of policing campuses would shift back to local police departments, she said, and thereby local taxpayers.
Brent Perry, attorney for parents Valerie and Mickey Redus, said that as a private university, UIW’s payment of a judgment in the case would not directly impact taxpayers because no public funds are at stake. He added that UIW could pursue “any number of remedies” short of shuttering its police department.
“The fact is, no one has ever shut down a private police department over a fear of a lack of immunity,” he said.
Perry said the officer, former UIW Cpl. Christopher Carter, had exercised “independent discretion” by acting “in the heat of the moment” in attempting to arrest Redus off campus on suspicion of drunk driving, a circumstance he argued should invalidate an immunity claim.
The judges seemed skeptical of UIW’s theory that universities would dissolve their police forces as a direct result of the case.
“We don’t have anything before us to say that if immunity is not extended, then Incarnate Word will dissolve its police department, rather than continue forward,” said Justice Irene Rios.
It wasn’t the first time the court had heard the case, in what has become a protracted legal battle. The hearing came more than a year after the case was heard by the Texas Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that UIW was a “governmental unit” when it came to its state-licensed police force.
The lawsuit was initially filed in 2014. The following year, a Bexar County grand jury chose not to indict Carter, who is no longer employed by UIW. The encounter outside the student’s off-campus apartment, in which Carter alleged that Redus temporarily gained control of his baton, ended with Carter shooting Redus five times, including once in the back.
An autopsy confirmed Redus’ blood alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit to drive, and an audio recording of the struggle captured Carter ordering Redus to stop resisting arrest dozens of times. Redus’ parents have maintained that UIW bears culpability in the honor student’s death, citing autopsy results and differences between the recording and university statements. The family alleges excessive force and accuses UIW of failing to properly train Carter.
With the case bogged down in appeals over the immunity claim, virtually no discovery of evidence surrounding the shooting has occurred, Perry said.
If the court rules in UIW’s favor on the question of immunity, Perry asked that the case be remanded to the trial court so that the plaintiffs can have an opportunity to submit an amended complaint. Warr said a ruling of immunity should result in the case’s dismissal.
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