Trucking companies, watchdog groups debate proposed 18-wheeler lawsuit changes

Bill moving forward in Texas Legislature would change trial rules on evidence, penalties

Trucking companies, watchdog groups debate proposed 18-wheeler lawsuit changes
Trucking companies, watchdog groups debate proposed 18-wheeler lawsuit changes

SAN ANTONIO – The Senate Transportation Committee voted to advance a bill Wednesday morning that would add limits to lawsuits involving commercial vehicles, including 18-wheelers.

A version of House Bill 19 has already passed the House, and Senate committee members voted to send an amended version to the Senate floor after hearing testimony.

Supporters of the bill told lawmakers it will crack down on excessive lawsuits and lower insurance costs, which they claim have been escalating. They also said some companies are going out of business and truckers are leaving the industry because of the lawsuits.

“I am frightened and alarmed at the commercial vehicle litigation environment in Texas,” said Luann Wagner, CEO of Texas Auto Carriers in San Antonio, told the committee. “We are in an industry that is being unfairly targeted by excessive and abusive litigation.”

Opponents of the bill, including some watchdog groups, said it would be more difficult to hold companies accountable.

“No consumer wants to litigate. It’s our last resort,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group. “But we have to have the incentive to correct such that those commercial vehicle companies will take their own steps to protect consumers from crashes.”

The legislation would require trials to be split similar to what happens with criminal trials in Texas. A company would have to be found negligent in a crash in the first phase before the case would proceed to a second phase.

While safety violations could be brought in the first phase, a company’s overall safety record could only be brought up in a second phase, where punitive damages would be decided.

“We want safer roads and we can actually guarantee that safer roads will bring down insurance costs,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group. “And they can’t say the same thing about this complicated legal maneuver that they’re trying to pull.”

But the trucking industry feels the legislation would level the playing field.

“This is not an us against them. It’s about what’s fair,” said John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association. “I would want my kids and my wife to have the same access to the court and fair trial as what we’re advocating for.”

Lawmakers will have to work out differences in the legislation before final votes could be taken in both chambers. If signed by the governor, the new rules would apply to lawsuits filed after September 1.

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