Plaintiffs of commercial truck accidents appropriately seek justice to recover financially from their injuries, but also to ensure trucking companies and drivers implement safety efforts. Recent legislative reforms are aimed at reducing insurance payouts in semi-truck accident lawsuits. Despite these efforts, it is still unknown how new legislation will affect the outcome of cases.
Trucking is a big business in Texas. The Texas Trucking Association (TXTA) has been pushing for lawsuit reform because they are tired of paying for their mistakes. They say high jury verdicts in trucking accident lawsuits were stifling growth in the industry. Unfortunately, House Bill (HB) 19 (codified as section 72 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code) became law on September 1, 2021, and applies to all semi-truck accident lawsuits filed after that date.
The new law changes the usual trial procedure for defendants in commercial vehicle lawsuits. It divides the trial process into two distinct phases. This process limits the possibility of issues and types of evidence that can be presented in each phase; however, there is still plenty of hope for plaintiffs seeking justice for their tragedy.
How Semi-Truck Accident Lawsuits Proceeded Before HB 19
Before enacting HB 19 into law, lawsuits involving commercial trucks proceeded like any other type of motor vehicle accident lawsuit. Plaintiffs were allowed to allege all of their theories of liability at one time and present all relevant evidence in support of those theories. In addition to vicarious liability by an employer for an employee’s conduct, an employer could be sued directly for conduct that contributed to the cause of the trucking accident.
In addition to damages intended to compensate a claimant for their losses, Texas law allows claimants injured in semi-truck accidents to recover ‘exemplary damages’ when they can prove that the harm they suffered was the result of one of the following:
- Gross negligence
Exemplary damages (also called punitive damages) are intended to punish a defendant for particularly bad conduct. They can be awarded in semi-truck accident lawsuits in Texas when it is proven a company was aware of an extreme risk of harm to others but chose to act with indifference toward those who might be facing the risk.
How HB 19 Changes the Way a Trial Proceeds
According to HB 19, a defendant in a commercial vehicle accident lawsuit may request to have a trial separated into two phases for purposes of determining liability. The first phase does not permit any evidence of an employer’s liability for exemplary damages and only establishes liability and damages relating directly to how the truck accident occurred. An exception is made when a trucking company has not complied with certain federal and state laws regarding driver qualifications.
- Determine the negligence of the truck driver
- Determine the negligence of the employer in maintaining the truck
- Determine the amount of compensatory damages (medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, diminished quality of life) to be awarded to the plaintiff as a result of the accident
- Determine whether the conduct of the commercial vehicle company meets one of the standards for awarding exemplary damages
Compliance with Federal and State Trucking Laws Required
To realize the intended benefit of having a lawsuit proceed in two separate phases, trucking companies and drivers must comply with provisions of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and the Texas Transportation Code. For trucking companies, this means they must make sure a driver:
- Is properly licensed
- Is qualified to operate a commercial vehicle
- Has completed a road test (if required)
- Has a current medical examination certificate
- Is not prohibited from operating a commercial vehicle
- Has applied for employment
- Has not refused or failed a required drug or alcohol test
If a trucking company fails to comply with the requirements, a plaintiff is allowed to allege negligent entrustment by the employer and can present evidence showing the direct liability of the employer during the first phase of the trial.
Expect to See More Semi Trucks on Texas Roads
It’s still too early to know how the new laws will impact jury verdicts in semi-truck accident lawsuits, but there is not likely to be a shortage of accidents with commercial vehicles in the coming years. And, our personal injury attorneys know how to devise winning strategies for our clients.
Texas is the largest employer of commercial truck drivers in the nation, and our state has been facing a growing shortage of commercial truck drivers. Over 80 percent of Texas communities depend on commercial trucks to move their freight. But as older drivers have been retiring from the trucking industry, new drivers have not been as quick to replace them. One possible solution to the driver shortage that would put more trucks on the road is the use of self-driving semi-trucks.
Since 2017, it has been legal for an automated vehicle to operate on the roads in Texas without a human driver. Texas has welcomed companies developing autonomous vehicle technology, and several self-driving truck companies are already testing vehicles on dedicated routes throughout the state.
Despite showing promise by eliminating some human error risk factors such as driver distraction, autonomous vehicles have not yet been able to eliminate all risks of accidents.
Semi-truck accidents involving driverless trucks would require a different approach to determining liability. The focus of liability would be on the company that developed the driving technology rather than a human operator – though it’s possible human action might still be an intervening cause.
Semi-Truck Accident Attorneys in Houston
Regardless of who is operating a semi-truck at the time of an accident, the damages to the injured victims can be significant and even fatal. Changing laws and advancing technology can complicate the claims process and potentially affect the ability to collect compensation.
Claimants filing semi-truck accident lawsuits in Texas need to work with experienced trial lawyers who understand the parties that can be held responsible for their losses and use the best legal strategies to ensure they are fairly compensated. The semi-truck accident lawyers at Adame Garza can help with a free consultation to discuss your case in English or Spanish today.