This story has been updated with a statement from the University of the Incarnate Word.

Six-and-a-half years after a University of the Incarnate Word police officer fatally shot student Cameron Redus during an off-campus traffic stop, the Redus family will be able to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against the university.

In a decision released Friday by the Texas Supreme Court, justices upheld an appeals court ruling that UIW is not a governmental unit and therefore would not be subject to sovereign immunity from being sued in connection with its law enforcement activities.

“As a private entity, the University does not act as an arm of the State in its overall operations,” Justice Jane Bland wrote. “And though the University’s law enforcement activities benefit the public, its arguments for extending sovereign immunity do not comport with the doctrine’s historic justifications: preserving the separation of government power and protecting the public treasury from lawsuits and judgments.”

A spokesman for the family told the Rivard Report Friday that Redus’ parents plan to move forward with the wrongful death lawsuit.

The Redus family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university in 2014, but UIW lawyers have argued the institution could not be sued because its police officers are licensed and commissioned by the State. That was the question taken up by the Texas Supreme Court last December after the Fourth Court of Appeals weighed in.

“We are gratified by the decisive 8-1 ruling by the Texas Supreme Court and appreciate their thoroughness in reaching this decision,” said parents Mickey and Valerie Redus in a statement. “We are anxious to move forward with the case. Over the past six years our goal has remained steadfast: to obtain answers, find closure and to win justice for Cameron.”

UIW respects and accepts the Supreme Court’s decision and thanks the Court for its consideration, a university official said via e-mail Friday afternoon.

“The tragic circumstances regarding the loss of Cameron Redus continues to affect countless lives and we at the University of the Incarnate Word keep the Redus family in our prayers,” the statement said. “We must never lose sight of the grieving family of Cameron Redus nor the tragedy that precipitated this lawsuit. … The University looks forward to the resolution of this matter for the Redus family and our UIW community.”

The case stems from Cameron Redus’ death in December 2013 after UIW police officer Christopher Carter pulled the 23-year-old student over at his apartment complex near campus. Carter told Alamo Heights police he decided to follow Redus after he observed a car weaving as it traveled northbound on Broadway. 

Carter said he did not know Redus was a UIW student at the time he decided to follow him, according to authorities.

When Carter attempted to arrest Redus outside of his apartment, a struggle ensued and the officer fired six shots at close range, killing Redus. An autopsy report later showed Redus was legally drunk and had traces of marijuana in his system.

Carter was placed on extended administrative leave and eventually resigned. A Bexar County grand jury declined to indict Carter on criminal charges in 2015.

In December, the Redus family and UIW attorneys argued before the state’s high court that because UIW does not receive public funds, it should not qualify as a governmental entity. A 2018 decision by Texas’ Fourth Court of Appeals supported the family’s argument, but UIW appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The Texas Supreme Court decision released Friday noted that justices had yet to extend sovereign immunity to a purely private entity even when the entity performed some governmental functions.

UIW is one of more than 20 universities that has established a police department under the Education Code.

“The State did not charter or create the University,” the opinion stated. “The State does not fund the University’s police department or set the department’s policies, procedures, or protocols. The State does not hire or fire the University’s officers. The University’s administration, and its private governing board, are alone responsible for its police department’s day-to-day operations and decision making.”

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote that the issue is not whether private universities should have sovereign immunity but whether their police departments should have the same immunity as city police departments.

“Law enforcement and public safety are core government responsibilities, just as public education is,” Hecht wrote. “I would hold that private university police departments have the same immunity from suit and liability as public police departments.”

In a 2019 interview with the Rivard Report, UIW President Thomas Evans said he would like the long-running legal battle “to be resolved.”  Evans became university president in June 2017.

“We have set reasonable terms for settlement and the university has refused to engage,” Redus family attorney Brent Perry told the Rivard Report following the oral arguments before the Texas Supreme Court.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.