On October 6, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals of Houston, Texas issued an opinion in San Jacinto River Authority v. Gonzalez, et al., a case involving claims by 85 residents against the San Jacinto River Authority (“Authority”), the governmental entity that maintains Lake Conroe and the Lake Conroe Dam, for releasing water from Lake Conroe and allegedly flooding their homes. The court found that the residents failed to prove causation because residents’ homes would have flooded even if the Authority had not released any water.
On August 27, 2017, Hurricane Harvey brought so much water into Lake Conroe that the Authority decided to open Lake Conroe Dam and release water from the lake. In total, the Authority released 79,100 cubic feet of water per second, an amount that the residents claimed “broke new records.” The residents alleged that the Authority’s decision to release water from Lake Conroe caused damage to their homes through flooding and resulted in severe property damage. Specifically, the residents claimed that the Authority’s actions amounted to (1) an inverse-condemnation or takings, (2) a nuisance, and (3) a grossly negligent maintenance and operation of the Lake Conroe Dam.
The case turned on whether the Authority had governmental immunity from the residents’ suit. Since the Authority is a political subdivision of Texas, the court noted that the authority is generally entitled to governmental immunity. However, the Texas Constitution waives governmental immunity for suits involving viable condemnation or takings. Under Texas law, a governmental entity is liable for a takings claim if the government acted intentionally and such action was a proximate cause of the taking or damaging of the claimant’s property. The Authority argued lack of causation, providing evidence that the water released from the dam physically could not have reached the residents’ homes and that the release of water did not cause other tributaries to back up and flood the homes.
The court emphasized how the Authority’s presentation of expert testimony from a hydrology expert and modeling data provided strong evidence that indicated lack of causation, whereas the residents’ presentation of evidence failed to include important information such as testimony from experts, testimony from the residents themselves, evidence on the extent of the flooding damages, or evidence on how much damage would have occurred if the Authority released no water. The court thus held, as a matter of law, that each of the residents’ homes would have flooded during Harvey even if the Authority had released no water at all from Lake Conroe and that the residents were unable to prove causation on their takings claims. As such, the residents failed to show that governmental immunity had been waived. The court also held that governmental immunity barred the residents’ gross negligence and nuisance claims.
Since the Authority had governmental immunity, the court dismissed the action with prejudice.
The full text of the opinion can be found here.