The Texas legislature has passed House Bill 19, a law that will impact lawsuits involving commercial motor vehicles commenced after September 1, 2021. The bill is aimed at controlling what are seen as abusive lawsuits against commercial motor vehicle operators by providing owners and operators an important option of seeking to bifurcate the trial of certain claims involving bodily injury or death involving a commercial motor vehicle. The bill follows a 118% increase in the number of lawsuits involving commercial motor vehicle crashes in Texas over the past eighteen years and dramatic increases in insurance premiums for both large and small commercial motor carriers in recent years. While the bill was originally aimed at providing far more protections for the industry as whole, the current version nevertheless provides critical new procedures all motor carrier operators and their counsel need to consider going forward.
Definition of Commercial Motor Vehicles
The bill defines "commercial motor vehicles" as vehicles being used "for commercial purposes in interstate or intrastate commerce to transport property or passengers . . . ." Ostensibly, the bill applies not only to 18-wheelers, but also to Uber and Lyft vehicles, delivery trucks and any other vehicle being used for commercial purposes. On the other hand, the bill expressly excludes passengers from the definition of "claimant" and thus may not apply to lawsuits by passengers of commercial motor vehicles. Whether courts limit or expand the law's application based upon these terms and the very claims intended to be governed by the law will be closely monitored issues.
Bifurcation of Civil Trials Involving a Commercial Motor Vehicle
Under the law, an owner or operator may move to bifurcate (or separate) the trial of claims against an employer defendant relating to a commercial motor vehicle accident predicated upon the liability of the employee (i.e., negligent entrustment) and otherwise concerning a demand for both compensatory and exemplary damages into two phases.
The law encourages defendants to move to bifurcate early in the litigation process; the motion to be filed within the later of 120 days after the defendant has filed an answer or within 30 days after a claim subject to bifurcation is filed against the defendant.
During the first phase, the trier of fact will determine liability for and compensatory damages for claims against the employee defendant and any claims against the employer defendant not subject to bifurcation under the law. In the second phase, if liability is found against the employee defendant in the first phase, the trier of fact will determine the liability on the bifurcated claims against the employer defendant and liability for and exemplary damages.
Limits on the Admissibility of Evidence to Establish an Employer's Liability
Beyond permitting bifurcation of claims at trial, the law also places limits on the admissibility of certain evidence regarding an employer defendant's liability. For instance, evidence of a defendant's failure to comply with a regulation or standard is admissible in the first phase of a bifurcated trial only if (a) the evidence tends to prove that failure to comply with the regulation or standard was proximate cause of the bodily injury or death, and (b) the regulation or standard is specific and governs, or is an element of a duty of care applicable to the defendant or the defendant's equipment. By imposing this standard for admissibility, the legislature is sending a clear message that merely weighing the probative value of a potential violation of a regulation is insufficient to avoid undue prejudice to defendants.
A battle with the plaintiff's bar to narrow the scope of claims subject to bifurcation are on the rapidly approaching horizon, and the law leaves much to be determined by the courts. Moreover, while important limits are imposed on the admissibility of evidence during the first phase of a trial, the law also carves out a number of exceptions, many of which expressly reference specific regulations under the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999 (Pub. L. No. 106-159) and Chapter 644 of the Texas Transportation Code.
Overall, the law provides commercial motor carriers and their counsel a multitude of new procedures and strategic considerations to limit the admissibility of highly prejudicial evidence and causes of action at the time of trial. The bill is anticipated to proceed without substantive amendments through final approval.
Defense counsel should work closely with commercial motor vehicle clients and their partners in the insurance and risk management industries to build strategies for success in this emerging litigation landscape.
WSHB provides nationwide litigation and legal services across thirty offices, working with national trucking and commercial motor vehicle industry partners, risk managers and insurers.
Kevin D. Smith is a founding partner of Wood Smith Henning & Berman LLP, and lead trial attorney in trucking litigation matters across the United States.
Robert W. Hellner is the managing partner of Dallas office of Wood Smith Henning & Berman LLP, and lead for the firm's employment litigation practice as well as lead attorney on a number of large exposure matters across the State of Texas.