State Trucking Leaders Detail Tort Reform Efforts

Insights From Florida, Iowa; Pennsylvania Efforts Underway
Miller, Neville and Oyler on the panel
From left: Miller, Neville and Oyler discuss their legislative efforts related to lawsuits. (SunJae Smith/American Trucking Associations)

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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — State association leaders discussed the strategies that led to legislative victories on lawsuit abuse reform in Florida and Iowa, and looked ahead to efforts to tackle the issue in Pennsylvania during a May 6 discussion at American Trucking Associations’ annual Mid-Year Management Session.

In Florida, the path that led to Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 24 signing a law that reforms the legal process in the state revolved around proponents playing their cards close to the vest while also carefully building a coalition of supporters, said Florida Trucking Association President and CEO Alix Miller.

“What people saw was a rapid, three-week assault to push this through,” she said. “There were about four people in this room who knew what was happening a year and a half ago. We kept it quiet.”

Miller worried that opponents would work hard to block the initiative if word got out, so proponents carefully built support for it in the statehouse with help from several key lawmakers.

“We kept telling people that we need your help — trucking needs help,” she said. “At that point, people started to say, ‘What can I do?’ ”

Among other things, the legislation reforms Florida’s legal framework by preventing plaintiffs’ attorneys from introducing fictitious and inflated medical bills at trial.

“The trial bar didn’t see it until it was filed,” Miller noted of the bill, “and that is truly remarkable.”

Miller said the overall efforts had been in the works for about five years.

In Iowa, trucking officials are celebrating passage of legislation that limits jury awards to $5 million in accident lawsuits against commercial vehicles. The bill also imposes a cap on noneconomic damages, which include pain and suffering, mental anguish and depriving family for the loss of a spouse, parent or child. The law also set limits on the extent to which trucking companies could be held liable for their hiring practices in accident cases.

Limiting the amounts juries can award is especially important in cases involving smaller carriers, said Brenda Neville, president of the Iowa Motor Truck Association.

“I think it’s important to note that the definition of a nuclear verdict is $10 million or more. But for the small carrier, a nuclear verdict is $500,000 or $750,000,” she said. Neville said that grassroots support among members was key to moving the bill through her state Legislature and to the desk of Gov. Kim Reynolds, where it was sat poised for signature in early May.

“This is a victory for Iowa, but the real victory is when we get this in other states,” Neville said. “That’s the thing that really spoke to us — we have an opportunity to be the architects of some public policy that hopefully will be replicated in other states.”

She added, “Once it starts happening in one state, hopefully we can get this done in other states.”

Neville also noted that the legislation provides exceptions to the $5 million limit in cases such as drunk driving, excessive speed or using a commercial motor vehicle in a felony.

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In Pennsylvania, the state association is seeking to change a so-called seat belt gag rule, which prohibits defense attorneys from informing a jury that someone driving a vehicle that is involved in an accident with a commercial truck may not have been wearing a seat belt when the crash occurred.

“Some of our attorney members have told us that they are defending a case and were incredulous that they can’t introduce this evidence in court,” said Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association President and CEO Rebecca Oyler. “It’s almost incredible, but that’s the case in Pennsylvania.”

She also knows it could take time to achieve a result like those seen in Florida and Iowa.

“We must be realistic about the fact that it’s going to take a while,” she said. “It’s going to be a long conversation, and we just concluded that we must start somewhere.”