The 2021 Texas Legislature enacted 666 new laws, most taking effect today. Overshadowed by the controversial ones affecting voting, guns, and abortion is one that drastically affects the rights of people injured in a commercial truck crash.
House Bill 19 will make Texas highways more dangerous by relaxing the legal requirements that hold negligent drivers and their employers liable for the damage they cause.
Trials will have two parts. In the first phase, liability and compensatory damages will be determined. However, evidence about the truck driver’s failure to obey safety laws is restricted.
Further, actions against the often responsible employer are greatly reduced. When the company stipulates that the driver was its employee and acted in the scope of his authority, the plaintiff may not present evidence against the company. As a result, the amount of compensation to the victims for their medical bills, lost wages, and other damages could be lowered.
Punitive damages will be determined in the second phase of the trial — if the case gets that far. But they are not easily awarded and when they are, they are capped and often reversed on appeal.
Finally, photographs showing relatively small property damage to the 18-wheeler (e.g. to its massive front bumper after it crashes into a smaller car or its side after its lane change forces a vehicle off the road) can be easily admitted into evidence.
Most 18-wheeler drivers and their employers obey federal and state laws. But regulations that restrict negligent 18-wheeler drivers should be increased, not decreased, to save lives and prevent often serious injuries.
Our Texas highways are already too dangerous. There were approximately 32,500 collisions involving commercial trucks in Texas in 2020 during the pandemic, which had much less traffic on the roads due to the shutdown. Approximately 600 people lost their lives and over 15,000 others were injured, many seriously, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Year after year, our state sadly has the most number of fatalities due to commercial truck wrecks.
This new law unfairly impedes lawsuits guaranteed under our state’s constitution. It will make these cases more expensive and unjust for injured Texans.
Mr. Berenson discussed the harmful effects of this law earlier this year at the request of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In a typical commercial truck crash collision, the driver is going too fast because his company is either pressuring him to deliver loads faster, not properly maintaining his truck, or failing to hire, train, or supervise its drivers correctly.
The plaintiff will now be required to get a verdict in phase one of the trial and prove the driver was liable before the jury can even know who employed him. Was “Joe” the driver of a a tractor-trailer owned by Amazon or was it his own pickup truck owned by his yard cutting business?
Mary Rose, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the legal system, cited research that this tactic will lower the amount of verdicts. Jurors are less likely to find Joe liable than Amazon. And if they do, they will probably not assess a large verdict against him.
So bad drivers and the companies that pay them just got free passes to continue violating safety laws. The possibility of criminal and civil liability is a strong incentive for truck companies to improve driver and vehicle safety.
Want to learn more about all the new laws? Here is the complete list.
If you have been questions about how to proceed if you have been in a truck or car wreck, contact a personal injury lawyer.