The bill would make it substantially more difficult to file a lawsuit against negligent transportation companies.
People who have been injured or lost loved ones in semi-truck-related accidents may find it more difficult to hold negligent logistics companies liable if a piece of Texas legislation is approved by the state senate.
According to The Texas Tribune, House Bill 19 would raise liability shields for most companies involved in commercial transportation—including, but not limited to semi-truck operators, rideshare companies like Uber, and delivery vehicles.
Under the bill’s provisions, anyone injured in an accident involving a commercial vehicle would have to first prove that the driver of the vehicle was liable before initiating a case against their employer. The legislation’s language refers to this as a “bifurcated trial.”
While a crash victim could pursue a complaint directly against a company, the employer would have the option to contest their liability and demand that the injured motorist first file a lawsuit against their own driver.
State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, said the bill intends to protect commercial vehicle operators from “unjust and excessive lawsuits.”
Leach said that the House of Representatives’ research committee found that the number of lawsuits stemming from motor vehicle crashes has risen 118% in the last decade, while the number of accidents resulting in serious or fatal injuries has only increased by single digits.
“This bill installs a legal and procedural framework that will protect Texas businesses of all sizes from abuses in our justice system, from abuse of lawsuits that are threatening the very existence of many of our small businesses,” Leach said in a statement.
Mary Rose, a sociology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, told the Texas Tribune she believes that House Bill 19 could shield large corporations from liability—even when they may deserve to be held accountable.
According to Rose, when crash lawsuits move to trial, juries are often more inclined to deliver larger awards if the motorist was employed by a large company like Amazon.
“If [Amazon] has more resources and is able to create a safer environment than a mom-and-pop store,” Rose said, “they’re almost held to this higher standard by juries.”
Rose said the bill could backfire: if drivers are found liable in the first round of a bifurcated trial, then it may increase liability awards when the jury’s focus moves to the employer.
Regardless, Rose said it is “concerning” that House Bill 19 seeks to transfer the burden of responsibility from employers back onto their workers.
“There is a way in which this s throwing employees kind of under the bus in the name of being nice to corporations,” Rose told the Texas Tribune. “I find that concerning.”
Other critics, like Texas Watch Executive Director Ware Wendell, claim that liability shields for big companies may embolden large companies to relax their safety standards.
“Everything in terms of our policy, in terms of our laws, needs to be aligned toward safety, not toward danger, not toward putting profits before people,” Wendell said.
Similarly, Texas Public Interest Research Group Director Bay Scoggin told the Tribune that reduced liability will provide a perverse incentive for money-hungry companies, which may be more inclined to pressure their drivers to work longer hours and meet less-realistic deadlines if the bill is approved.
“It makes the commercial vehicle company less liable for wrongdoing, which creates a perverse incentive to not use the most available safety measures that we have,” Scoggin said.