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Suing Trucking Companies Would Be Harder Under Lawmaker's Proposal

Trucks on I-35 in Austin. A bill in the state legislature would make it harder for people to obtain damages from a commercial vehicle company if they're involved in a crash.
Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Trucks on I-35 in Austin. A bill in the state legislature would make it harder for people to obtain damages from a commercial vehicle company if they're involved in a crash.

Lee esta historia en español.

People suing commercial vehicle companies over injuries they suffered during a crash would face new limits on what evidence can be presented in the initial phase of a trial under bipartisan legislation that has almost passed the Texas legislature.

Commercial vehicles include everything from an 18-wheeler to someone driving a subcompact car for a flower delivery company.

Supporters of House Bill 19 say it would limit frivolous and abusive lawsuits against mostly small businesses, which result in higher insurance costs that get passed on to consumers. Opponents argue the legislation would make it harder for crash victims to hold negligent companies accountable and win damages to pay for expensive medical bills.

Here's basically how HB 19 would work.

If someone sues the driver of a commercial vehicle, during the first part of the trial, the plaintiff could only submit evidence related to who was responsible for the crash and how severe the injuries were. Only in the second phase of the trial could the person suing present evidence about the company's track record on safety or training.

The bill would still allow someone to present evidence against the company in the first phase of a trial if the crash was caused by negligent maintenance of the vehicle or some other reason that didn't involve the driver.

"We all rely on commercial vehicles, but right now they're feeling an immense amount of pressure because of the lawsuit environment that we have in Texas," said Lucy Nashed with the Keep Texas Trucking Coalition, an association of companies, business groups and chambers of commerce. "That's creating an untenable environment for small businesses that operate commercial vehicles, because it's putting a lot of pressure on their insurance costs."

But opponents say the legislation would make it harder to hold commercial vehicle companies accountable as more people get killed on highways. The per capita rate of fatal collisions involving large trucks in Texas increased by 47% from 2010 to 2017, according to the latest data available from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

"What we need to be addressing is the overall problem of wrongdoing in the patterns of commercial vehicle operators," said Bay Scoggin with TexPIRG, a consumer advocacy group. "It's about creating the incentive to make their drivers safer and happier and healthier and that's what we know will drive down the insurance costs."

HB 19 already passed out of the Texas House. An amended version was approved by the Texas Senate this week on a vote of 30-1. The House can now approve that version and send it to the governor's desk or continue working with the Senate on changes.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5

Nathan Bernier a KUT reporter and the local host during All Things Considered and Marketplace. He grew up in the small mountain town of Nelson, BC, Canada, and worked at commercial news radio stations in Ottawa, Montreal and Boston before starting at KUT in 2008.