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Texas HB19 Law Changes How Truck Crash Lawsuits Are Tried: Analysis

New Texas HB19 law changes how injury lawsuits against truck drivers and trucking companies are tried and may change the frequency of the ‘Nuclear Verdict’. This is the massive amount in compensatory and punitive damages that a plaintiff can receive if they win an accident case, at times reaching hundreds of millions of dollars. The new Texas HB19 law changes enacted on September 1, 2021 in  aims to reduce those huge verdicts. The law is listed in sections 72.051-72.055 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.

Texas Trucking Association President and CEO John Esparza was ecstatic about the change. “Today is a monumental day for the Texas trucking industry,” said John D. Esparza, as told to National Public Radio affiliate KERA in Dallas. “For too many years, the trucking industry has been a lucrative profit center for some trial attorneys.”

“The problem was, the lawyers were using tactics to inflate costs, and grant bigger awards, and one could say well yeah we’re doing what you’re supposed to do for your client,” Esparza says. “Well, far too often you were crossing the line of what’s right and creating an environment in which you were just taking advantage of, and which the legislature would come back and correct because they recognized, hey, that’s not the intent.”

Texas Law Divides Trial into Two Parts

The new law – Texas House Bill 19 – benefits truckers and trucking companies in several ways. First, when an injured party sues a truck driver and his or her company the trial is divided into two parts, what is called a ‘Bifurcated Trial”. The first phase focuses on the fault of the truck driver.

Trucking is big business in Texas with more than 735,000 jobs in Texas tied to it.

The second phase determines the fault of the trucking company. Before H.B. 19 such liability trials combined both phases into one. From the trucking industry’s point-of-view this change benefits the Texas trucking industry by reducing the cost of defending such trials.

H.B. 19 was backed by a coalition of Texas and national organizations including the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the Texas Trucking Association, the Keep Texas Trucking Coalition, and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

As reported by National Public Radio / KERA radio politics journalist Bret Jaspers “The main change is that it takes what used to be one trial and splits it into two phases. They call it bifurcation,” says Jaspers. “In trucking, if you are the plaintiff going to sue a trucking company for damages after an accident in the first phase of the trial you have to establish the negligence of the driver, him or herself. And then that’s established and you can maybe do compensatory damages in that first phase, but then only once you have established that can you move on to … the second phase which is adjudicating the guilt or the negligence of the company and then in that second phase is where you could sue for gross negligence which is a pretty high standard.”

According to the TTA, “H.B. 19 simplifies and clarifies the bifurcated trial provision, but retains the goal of ensuring the evidence introduced matches the type of damages to be awarded.” “So it softened what could have been … something that trial lawyers saw as a terrible constraint on their ability to hold companies accountable,” says Jaspers.

New Law Reduces Depth of Attorney Inquiry

In layman’s terms, the law significantly reduces the admissibility and depth of enquires that plaintiff attorneys stretch out for extra profit, and extend to cost the defendant more – the length of depositions, expert and plaintiff testimony, and restricting questions that have nothing to do with the accident in question, such as company safety records and training standards. That is the impression that the Texas trucking industry has.

Texas attorneys specializing in suing truckers for driving negligence and injury have another view. Houston trial attorney Greg Baumgartner of the Baumgartner Law Firm has sued trucking companies and truck drivers for some 35 years. He sees his role as a kind of ombudsman for the public and public safety on the road.

“I think that trial lawyers, particularly those that specialize in trucking accidents, really are a kind of community safety watchdog for the trucking industry,” says Baumgartner.

He adds that Texas attorneys look over the shoulders of the law enforcement officers who investigate trucking accidents. They help determine for the jury whether the driver was qualified to drive, was properly trained, was over her allotted hours, were the brakes bad, etc.

Reporter Jaspers observes that “Texas attorneys are not happy about it. I think (that) is the overarching takeaway. There’s a version that ended up passing into law that doesn’t change things as drastically as the introduced version did. Because that version … had a lot more in it,” Jaspers says.

Esparza understands the need for plaintiffs to go after big pockets defendants if someone has been harmed, but he says the trucking industry has unfairly been a target for such lawsuits for years.

Crash Trials Rely on Fleet Safety Practices

“I had companies that literally … back in April when this bill was tracking … I had a company that called me and said John I just spent 8-and-a-half-hours in a deposition, said Esparza. “Not once did they ask me about the accident itself. It was all about 8-and-a-half-hours of my company’s tactics and records going back 25 years, training because that’s where the abuse is taking place.”

Esparza says that over the decades when the Texas legislature became interested in alleged abuses among some trial lawyers – for example, medical lawsuits against physicians, hail damage to homeowner’s roofs – the lawyers would move on to another industry to sue. Truckers became the big target in Texas about 6-7 years ago he says.

“When I first got involved in this business there were loss lawyers, trial lawyers preying on businesses, in this case, it was the medical community 20 years ago suing in areas that were affecting the insurance rates, says Esparza. “Hey, it’s one thing if we’re doing the due diligence for clients and if there’s an accident someone’s got to be held accountable.”

The Texas Trucking Association has used a state crash data database for a study that found over more than a dozen years that tractor-trailers were involved “in fatal crashes, only 14% of the time (of all fatalities) – and that law enforcement assigned responsibility to the truck driver only 4% of the time.”

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Lawyer Claims Nuclear Verdicts are a Myth

Jaspers says that the study was flawed and that the proliferation of so-called “nuclear verdicts” against trucking companies in Texas may be a myth. “The industry pointed to industry-backed studies relating to the quote ‘nuclear verdicts’ and one thing that they said was,” says Jaspers, “Jury verdicts are leading to increased insurance rates and something that was brought up at the legislature during debate on this bill was that if we have an insurance problem we should be talking about insurance not how to change or regulate or adapt the insurance industry.”

Truck Crash Trial Law Limits Evidence Allowed at Trial

According to Dallas law firm Thompson Coe, “HB 19 also limits the type of evidence allowed at trial. Evidence of a defendant’s failure to comply with regulations or standards will be admissible in the first portion of the trial only if:

1. The evidence tends to prove that failure to comply with the regulation or standard was a proximate cause of the bodily injury or death for which damages are sought; and

2. The regulation or standard is specific and governs, or is an element of a duty of care applicable to, the defendant, the defendant’s employee, or the defendant’s property or equipment when any of those is at issue in the action.”

Law Allows GPS Tracking and Video Evidence

Other provisions of H.B. 19 benefit both truckers and the lawyers suing them. The law allows the admission of photographs and video recorded at the scene of the accident. This means that telematics – GPS tracking and video cameras recording activity around a truck will play a large role in both defending innocent truck drivers as well as aiding plaintiff’s attorneys.

Average Cost for Truck Crash

Atlanta company GPS Trackit is a leader in the telematics industry, specializing in IoT fleet solutions and GPS tracking. “Lawsuits and liabilities can be incredibly costly. Studies have shown the average accident involving commercial vehicles costs your company hundreds of thousands if not millions. CRC Group (provides trucking insurance solutions in the for-hire trucking and leased owner-operator space) notes that it has been 11 years since the FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) first reported the average cost of a police-reported crash involving a large truck. Adjusted for inflation, those numbers indicate that the average cost for large-truck accidents is about $120,000. If fatalities are involved, the average cost goes up to $4.8 million.”

Law Limits Frivolous Lawsuits Against Trucking Industry

Esparza says that H.B. 19 aims to reign in the so-called ‘frivolous’ lawsuit against the trucking industry. “When you’ve got a vehicle that rubs up against a truck and you see basically where a tire hit a door and you’re asking for a million-plus, your starting place is a million- five, its not even decent,” says Esparza. The ‘nuclear verdict’ is grabbing the headlines. The abuse is really at that granular level. No one was ‘hurt’ but you’re going to give some compensatory damages away just because hey, the individual had to go to the hospital with a sore whatever.”

“This will serve to limit plaintiffs’ fishing expeditions, and unnecessary detours during the trial, into commercial vehicle companies’ operations,” says the Thompson Coe law firm. “H.B. 19 will hopefully reduce frivolous claims, litigation expenses and the time of trials in cases involving commercial motor vehicle accidents.”

Attorney John Esparza celebrates the new law: “It’s kinda like the dog which chases the car and finally catches it. We all went ‘Oh my gosh, that was a successful session. ‘What do we do now? What happens now?’”

Even with the win, the Texas Trucking Association is already looking to the future. “We have to stay ahead of the Texas Trial Bar and try to figure out what are they going to look for next,” says Esparza. “I can almost promise you it’s going to be something. We’re not done, in other words. And we probably never were done with one victory like this and that’s what it is, he says.”

“I keep telling everybody: We’ve got to be patient. We don’t know how they are going to work around this abuse, but we do know that they very likely will, so we’ve got to stay ahead of them,” says Esparza.

If you’d like to learn more about how GPS Trackit can help to improve safety, increase productivity and reduce costs for your business, speak with one of our knowledgeable Fleet Advisors at 866-320-5810 or get a quick Custom Quote.

SOURCES:

capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup/Text.aspx?LegSess=87R&Bill=HB19
cdllife.com/2021/controversial-trucking-lawsuit-bill-advances-through-committee/
keeptexastrucking.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NEW-HB-19-Elements-3.pdf
truckingresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ATRI-Nuclear-Verdicts-One-Page-Summary-07-2020.pdf
www.house.texas.gov/members/member-page/?district=67
www.insurancejournal.com/news/southcentral/2021/05/21/615398.htm
www.keranews.org/news/2021-05-31/changes-to-trucking-lawsuits-heads-to-abbotts-desk
www.reformaustin.org/2021-texas-session-bills/house-approves-bill-that-limits-liability-for-trucking-companies/
www.texasstandard.org/stories/texas-lawmakers-consider-bill-that-would-make-it-harder-to-sue-trucking-companies-over-accidents/
www.thetrucker.com/trucking-news/the-nation/newly-signed-texas-law-changes-how-truck-crash-lawsuits-are-adjudicated
www.thompsoncoe.com/publications/texas-passes-new-law-governing-trials-in-actions-against-commercial-trucking-companies/
www.truckinginfo.com/10145998/texas-law-to-reform-truck-liability-rules

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