Two families who sued Haltom City and the Skyline Mobile Home Estates after a devastating flood in 2007 that resulted in the death of a 4-year-old girl and severe burns to a mother and son got a painful legal setback when the 2nd Court of Appeals ruled that the city was not negligent.
The appeals court said that the families did not present enough evidence to show that Haltom City created a dangerous situation before the night of June 17 and the early morning hours of June 18, when Whites Branch Creek left its banks and the mobile home park flooded. In its opinion, the justices said that under the Texas Tort Claims Act there is a narrow window in which governmental immunity is waived.
The evidence presented by the families in trial court indicated that the city did not warn people or take other precautions to improve residents' safety before the June 17-18 flood. The flood did about $1 million in property damage, but the families sued only for their physical and emotional injuries.
The Fort Worth appeals court overturned a summary judgment from the 48th District Court stating that Haltom City should be held liable.
Alexanderia Collins, who was 4, died after she was swept out of her mother's arms when the family's boat capsized as they tried to escape their flooded home. Jacki Sexton-Aurell and her son Ranger were severely burned when their mobile home exploded as they tried to escape.
Robert Osburn, an attorney representing the families of Aaron Collins and Brian Aurell, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the opinion, which was issued Aug. 23, because the Texas Supreme Court has made similar rulings in cases when cities are sued for negligence.
"The justices on the court of appeals were hog-tied by the Supreme Court of Texas," Osburn said. "The justices did what they had to do, but in the last pages of the opinion, they set out everything Haltom City knew and completely disregarded that."
Osburn is considering his next legal steps.
Chief Justice Terrie Livingston wrote the opinion and was joined by Justice Lee Gabriel. Justice Lee Ann Dauphinot dissented, stating that the evidence supported the trial court's decision.
History of flooding
Haltom City City Manager Tom Muir said he feels terrible for what happened to the Aurell and Collins families, but that the city is not at fault.
"I don't know what else we could have done. Everybody can Monday morning quarterback," he said.
Muir said that the Skyline Mobile Home Park is prone to flooding, and that when heavy rains are in the forecast, the Fire Department monitors the radar and goes to the park to notify residents. They also had previously responded to incidents at the mobile home park. In March 2007, for example, members of the Fire Department performed a swift-water rescue at Skyline. In that flood, about 40 people were evacuated.
The mobile home park is unique in that each lot is individually owned, the streets are not owned by Haltom City, and the city owns one sewer easement in the park, Muir said.
On June 17, 2007, there were heavy rains to the north, with Keller receiving 11 inches, he said. Haltom City had a mutual aid agreement with Keller and sent a boat to help with rescues. The city checked Skyline earlier in the evening, and there was no indication that it was in danger of flooding.
"Our guys were in Keller when water started coming in to the park," he said.
Firefighters rushed to the mobile home park telling people to evacuate. Residents also called 911 to report the flooding.
In the Aurell household, Jacki Chantel Sexton-Aurell didn't think there was a problem at first, so she went to sleep. Awakening shortly after midnight, Aurell saw water coming in to her home. As she and her family were trying to escape, she smelled gas, and the house exploded, throwing Jacki and her 8-year-old son, Ranger, through a window. The mother and son suffered serious burns.
The Collins family also saw water in their home, and Aaron Collins found a neighbor's fishing boat. The family got into the boat, but it capsized, sweeping Aaron downstream. Natasha Collins grabbed her two daughters and a friend, but two girls were swept downstream, where the father grabbed them and took them to another mobile home.
A strong current caused Natasha Collins to lose her balance, and her daughter, Alexanderia, was swept away. Her body was found the next morning.
In their lawsuit, the families allege that they were never told that they lived in a flood plain and that the city never warned them of the potential for flooding.
Osburn said he is weighing his options on whether to appeal the decision, but said "politics will make it difficult."
"We have to man up and do what we can right now to represent these folks," he said.
This story contains information from the Star-Telegram archives.