You Better, You Betz: DART Can't Keep Old Man River Down For Long

Listen up, Dallas Area Rapid Transit! My man, Roscoe Betz, is still comin'. And some day he is gonna get you.

This week Betz won again.

I first wrote about Mr. Betz in June 2008, when he sued DART in the Justice of the Peace Court of Judge Al Cercone. He accused DART of flooding a house he owns on Alcalde Street in Old East Dallas. Betz said DART caused recurring floods on the whole street by building a bus garage on top of a creek in 1988.

DART argued two things. 1) There is no creek, and 2) DART can't be sued because it has "sovereign immunity."

I have to explain sovereign immunity. That is the principle by which a government agency says, "We're the government. Screw you."

I may not be stating it exactly right. I received my legal training on the police beat.

Betz was 89 at the time. DART sent a whole room full of lawyers over to the JP court to fight him. You know, the orders probably went out over the PA system in the DART legal department: "ROOM 52B, ALL LAWYERS REPORT TO JP COURT TO FIGHT OLD MAN." Next thing you knew, the gray vans were rolling.

But Betz, representing himself, beat 'em. Judge Cercone ruled he had come up with the right arguments to knock down the sovereign immunity principle. DART had to stand trial.

Two weeks later I wrote about Betz again when he beat 'em again, this time in the trial on the issues. Judge Cercone ruled Betz was right. There was a creek, only now it's down in a pipe. DART did dam it up by building its garage. And Cercone told DART to pay Betz five grand. DART appealed. They based their appeal on the floor-full-of-lawyers principle. This is the ancient principle in common law that says if you have an entire floor full of lawyers in your building, you can appeal the damn weather if you feel like it. They did.

Guess what. This week Betz won again, this time on the appeal in the County Court at Law. A jury ruled in his favor saying all the same things Cercone had said two years ago.

This time Betz was assisted by an attorney, M. Jason Ankele, who went to Baylor law school, not the police beat school of law. Ankele was very impressed by his now 91-year-old client.

"The jury liked Mr. Betz," Ankele told me. "Off the top of his head he was able to go from the '91 flood to the '95 flood to the more recent flood and give you the exact height of the water for each one."

This time Betz was awarded almost $60,000. He and his wife were in high spirits (and excellent health, DART!) when I visited them at home this afternoon, but Betz told me he isn't counting on seeing a check any time soon. As he knows, DART may appeal the decision, probably arguing the principle of "sovereign amusement," simply meaning it's better to appeal than just sit around shooting spit-wads at each other.

I asked Morgan Lyons, the spokesman for DART, what the agency's response might be to this week's finding for Betz. He said, "We'll review the verdict and then decide what our next steps will be."

I feel as if I can hear the order going out on the PA system now up on the legal floor: "ROOMS 52B, 52C and 52D, report to conference room 7X to review verdict in old man flood case."

I'd call him Old Man River, because he just keeps rollin' along.

Another DART story I have shared here involving sovereign immunity was the saga of John C. Tatum, a former DART board member suing DART for breach contract in a development deal for something called Monroe Shops.

Just to catch you up, the Texas Supreme Court earlier this year refused to hear DART's appeal of an appellate court ruling upholding a trial court ruling that DART could not use the sovereign immunity argument against Tatum. That means the trial of Tatum's suit will come back to district court in Dallas, probably later this year.

Tatum had a deal with DART by which DART was to sell him an old trolley maintenance building, which Tatum was to renovate for DART's use. DART got tired of the deal, but instead of negotiating a pull-out, DART just walked the closing on the sale of the building. Tatum sued for breach. DART claimed immunity. Judge Carlos Cortez in the 44th Judicial District Court ruled that sovereign immunity does not cover not showing up for a closing. That comes under the principle "sovereign hooky," in which the sovereign fails to get out of bed in the morning. But what is sovereign hooky, really? He's the damn sovereign. He's busy with something else. Let's see. What rhymes with sovereign hooky?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze