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April 8, 2021 9:30 AM, EDT

Texas Bill Seeks to Reduce Large Jury Verdicts in Crash Lawsuits

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A bill making its way through the Texas Legislature could make it more difficult for victims to reap multimillion-dollar jury verdicts against truckers in lawsuits that result in serious injury or death following a crash.

The bill, HB 19, has sparked a “spirited” fight between truckers and plaintiffs’ attorneys in a state that is among the leaders in the number of crashes involving trucks and the huge jury verdicts that result in civil lawsuits.

The fight over HB 19 generated more than 800 public comments, and more than 40 individuals signed up to testify at a hearing last month before the Texas House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.

“We need to ask ourselves is there a problem that needs fixing?” asked the committee chairman, state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican, while opening a hearing on the bill. “I think there is. This bill ensures a level playing field.”

Leach said that in 2019 there were 55,000 motor vehicle lawsuits filed in Texas, and that there has been a 118% increase in motor vehicle lawsuits since 2008.

The bill was referred out of committee last month in a 5-4 vote along party lines, with the Republicans moving the bill to the full House.

The legislation, if passed, contains a number of provisions that some legal experts say would help trucking defense attorneys defend their clients in litigation that too often results in multimillion-dollar jury verdicts against trucking companies operating in the state.

“HB 19 is laser focused on the changes in law that are necessary to protect the rights of Texans who are truly injured in a commercial vehicle accident while simultaneously reducing opportunities for some trial lawyers to mislead juries to seek millions in damages in cases where the commercial vehicle owner was not at fault or the plaintiff was not injured,” according to an analysis of the bill by Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

The changes required by the legislation include:

  • A provision that would allow properly authenticated photographs or videos of a vehicle or object involved in a collision to be admitted into evidence. At present, judges in Texas have discretion on whether to allow photo or video evidence, in some cases known to leave out photo evidence because it may be too gruesome or deemed not relevant.
  • A provision that would “bifurcate” a trial, only allowing allegations of unsafe motor carrier safety practices during its second phase. The first phase of a trial would allow evidence on who is at fault in a crash.
  • A provision for a defendant to pay certain damages assessed by juries to be paid over time, rather than in a lump sum.

John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association, said the bill is aimed at addressing some of the unfair tactics that plaintiff attorneys frequently use against motor carriers in truck-involved accident lawsuits.

John Esparza

Esparza

“A lot of things that aren’t fair practice today, where a jury is just completely biased. We’re just trying to level the playing field,” Esparza told Transport Topics.

“We’re expecting it on the full House floor in the next week or two,” Esparza said. “We’re about to hear the Senate version of the bill very soon.”

Esparza said the opponents of the bill are using “scare tactics.”

“That’s what we’re up against currently,” he said. “Their facts are wrong. Data are wrong. Their only defense is to tell Texans that this bill will prevent you from suing a trucking company if they’re negligent.”

Another group fighting for motor carriers, Keep Texas Trucking Coalition, agreed that HB 19 and a few other bills already introduced would serve to make the courts more fair for truckers.

“Multimillion-dollar or ‘nuclear’ verdicts grab headlines, but abuse is more frequently found in more routine settlements under a typical umbrella coverage of $1 million,” the group said in its literature. “Opportunity-seeking plaintiff lawyers partner with unscrupulous medical providers to grossly inflate claims, resulting in increased insurance premiums and driving trucking companies out of business.”

But Jim Perdue, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, said the bill would be damaging to current court practices.

“HB 19 is designed to create unprecedented delays in both the process and delivery of finality of justice,” Perdue told the committee last month. “HB 19 micromanages discovery decisions, evidentiary rulings, causes of action and judgment formation.”

Perdue added, “It is a radical remaking of the civil justice system for a specific classification of defendants.”

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