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People affected by crashes causing bodily injury or death involving commercial motor vehicles would find it harder to win damages from companies under a bill that was approved by the Texas House and is making its way through the Senate.
Commercial motor vehicles include 18-wheelers, Uber and Lyft vehicles, delivery trucks and any other vehicle being used for commercial purposes. The bill’s sponsors say it will prevent excessive lawsuits against companies, while road safety advocates say the bill would make Texas’ already unsafe roads even more dangerous.
Under House Bill 19, when a commercial vehicle owner or operator is sued after a crash, the driver would have to be proven liable in court before a case could be brought against their employer. That means a jury would not learn which company employed the driver unless the trial advanced to the second phase, when damages would be assessed.
The bill passed the House in an 81-49 vote on April 30 and is awaiting a vote in the Senate after making it through the Senate Transportation Committee.
State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who authored the bill, said it would protect commercial vehicle operators from “unjust and excessive lawsuits.” Leach said in the bill analysis that in the past decade, the number of lawsuits stemming from motor vehicle crashes in Texas has increased by 118%, while the number of crashes involving severe injury or death have decreased or only slightly increased.
“This bill installs a legal and procedural framework that will protect Texas businesses of all sizes from abuses in our justice system, from abuse of lawsuits that are threatening the very existence of many of our small businesses,” Leach said.
Mary Rose, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on the legal system, civil damage awards and citizens’ views of justice, said the proposal essentially would protect large corporations from some liability.
Rose cited a study by the Wisconsin Law Review that found that liability verdicts against companies may be lower in the type of trial outlined in the bill because jurors are generally more likely to find a corporation liable for damages than an individual driver.
For example, if a jury knew that a commercial vehicle driver who was involved in a serious crash worked for a large company like Amazon, Rose said, punitive damages likely would be higher because “if (Amazon) has more resources and is able to create a safer environment than a mom-and-pop store … they're almost held to this higher standard (by juries).”
Even though the bill aims to shield companies from expensive verdicts by hiding their identity at first, it could potentially backfire and increase liability and damage awards in the trial’s second phase, when all the attention turns to them, Rose said.
“There is a way in which this is throwing the employees kind of under the bus in the name of being nice to corporations and … I find that concerning,” Rose said.
Other critics of the bill said it could make roads more dangerous.
“Everything in terms of our policy, in terms of our laws, needs to be aligned toward safety, not toward danger, not toward putting profits before people,” said Ware Wendell, executive director of Texas Watch, a nonpartisan advocacy group that works to hold insurance companies and other corporations accountable to their customers.
Bay Scoggin, state director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group, said Texas already has some of the most dangerous roads in the country because of high speed limits and high levels of traffic. In 2019, there were 1.26 deaths on Texas roads per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, and the national average was 1.1 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles.
Scoggin said ultimately, the bill would make it more likely that Texas will have more dangerous vehicles and drivers on the roads.
“It makes the commercial vehicle company less liable for wrongdoing, which creates a perverse incentive to not use the most available safety measures that we have,” he said.
Leach said victims will still be able to receive justice if the bill becomes law.
“The bill also ensures that negligent drivers and the companies that employ them will be held liable for accidents that they cause,” Leach said.
Disclosure: Lyft and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.