Will HB19 unfairly shield trucking companies from liability?

A Texas bill known as House Bill 19 has passed both the House and Senate and is now entering the reconciliation phase. That means that the House could simply accept a Senate amendment and the bill would go to Governor Abbott for his signature. Or, the House could reject the amendment, which would require the bill to go to conference committee to work out the differences.

What the bill would do is change the way trials for commercial vehicle accidents are run in the state of Texas. If passed, it would require plaintiffs to prove the commercial driver was responsible for the crash before the driver’s employer could be brought into the case. In other words, it would largely remove the opportunity to argue that the trucking company was itself partly responsible for the crash unless the driver was first held responsible.

Proponents of the bill claim that its purpose is to protect businesses from “unjust and excessive lawsuits.” In the bill analysis, State Rep. Jeff Leach (R, Plano) pointed out that motor vehicle accident lawsuits have increased in Texas by 118% recently while the actual number of motor vehicle accidents has remained the same or even decreased.

However, opponents say that the bill would result in lower payouts for all commercial motor vehicle accidents because juries are more likely to order large awards, including punitive damages, against companies instead of individual drivers.

That said, it could be that hiding the identity of the transportation company in the first phase of the trial could backfire. If jurors do find the driver responsible and move on to the second phase of the trial, they would then be made aware of the driver’s employer. If that information comes as a negative surprise, the jury might award even greater damages in retaliation.

Could the bill actually increase the danger?

Some groups argue that the bill would likely increase the danger on Texas roadways.  For example, the Texas Public Interest Research Group pointed out that Texas already has some of the most dangerous roadways in the country. This is partly due to high speed limits and a high volume of traffic.

Sometimes, the crashes on Texas roads are largely the fault of the employer’s negligence rather than mere driver error. For example, the employer may not maintain their trucks adequately or they may pressure the driver to work longer hours than is allowed by law. In such cases, it wouldn’t be fair for the company’s identity to be hidden during part of the trial.

If you have been in a crash with a commercial vehicle, get help from an attorney who knows how to hold commercial drivers and their employers responsible in court.