Commercial Vehicle Accident Lawsuits Target of Texas Legislation

April 5, 2021 by

A pair of companion bills have been introduced in the Texas House and Senate that proponents say are aimed at providing consistency and uniformity in civil actions involving commercial vehicle accidents. Opponents, on the other hand, say the bills are an attempt to shield trucking companies and their insurers from liability in lawsuits brought by crash victims.

HB19 by Rep. Jeff Leach and SB17 by Sen. Larry Taylor are identical pieces of legislation that if passed would require a two-part trial in civil actions involving a commercial motor vehicle if requested in a motion by the defendant.

“The first phase of the bifurcated trial would determine liability for and the amount of compensatory damage. The second phase would determine liability for and the amount of exemplary damages to be awarded,” according to a House summary of HB19.

HB19 also provides, among other things, that a “defendant’s failure to comply with a regulation or standard would not be admissible into evidence and would not support a judgment for liability or damages unless the regulation or standard governs a specific aspect of the defendant’s or defendant’s employee’s conduct or omission that is at issue in the action, or a specific aspect of use or condition of the defendant’s property or equipment that is at issue, and a reasonable jury could find that the failure to comply was a proximate cause of the injury or death for which damages are sought,” the House summary states.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Keep Texas Trucking Coalition support the bills, as does the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA), which says it is concerned about the increase in attorney involvement in automobile accidents in Texas.

The bills’ opponents say they’re a giveaway to trucking companies and insurers. Texas Watch, which describes itself as a consumer advocacy organization, said on its website that the bills give “trucking corporations less incentive to follow safety measures” and “make it harder to punish trucking companies through our courts when they violate safety standards.”

Another provision “would require a court, on motion of a defendant, to dismiss a direct action against a defendant if the defendant stipulates that the injury or death for which damages are sought were caused by an employee acting within the scope of employment,” the House summary states.

A statement released by the Texas-based Thomas J. Henry Law Firm, said that means the bills would force victims “to take legal action against truck drivers first, before they can hold trucking companies responsible for their failure to safeguard the public from big rig accidents. Even worse, the legislation would prevent an accident victim’s attorney from presenting discovery evidence into a trial that would incriminate the driver’s employer, the trucking companies who hire and oversee them.”

In 2019, the latest year for which crash data is available from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), there were more than 39,000 commercial motor vehicle accidents across the state.

Attorney Involvement

APCIA has released a report analyzing attorney involvement in commercial auto claims cases. “Trends in Attorney Representation: Texas Commercial Automobile Insurance” was published by Milliman for the APCIA. The study looked at thousands of commercial vehicle accident claims over a five-year period, concluding “that larger losses in Texas grew at a faster pace than other losses. During the same period, attorney representation increased, even on smaller claims, and the relative costs of resolving claims were significantly higher for claims with attorney representation,” according to APCIA.

The report found that the number of commercial auto liability claims over $500,000 in value grew by 60% in Texas from 2015 to 2019, and that attorney involvement in commercial auto liability claims has increased by more than 14% since 2015.