Texas Legislature Passes Law Affecting Commercial Motor Vehicle Accident Suits
The Texas Legislature passed House Bill 19, which amended the Civil Practice and Remedies Code to include a new subchapter1 relating to cases regarding commercial motor vehicle accidents, and Governor Abbott signed it on June 16, 2021. Taking effect on September 1, 2021 and applying to actions commenced on or after September 1, 2021, the bill is landscape-changing legislation that will affect trial strategy, settlement negotiations, and case evaluations. HB-19 applies not only to trucking cases, but to all cases involving “commercial motor vehicles,” which is defined as “a motor vehicle being used for commercial purposes in interstate or intrastate commerce to transport property or passengers, deliver or transport goods, or provide services. The term does not include a motor vehicle being used at the time of the accident for personal, family, or household purposes.” The key aspects of HB-19 are discussed below. The full bill can be read here.
HB-19 requires, upon a defendant’s request, a bifurcated trial when the plaintiff2 seeks to recover exemplary damages. The defendant must make the request within set timelines relatively early on in the case, which then dictates that the first portion of the eventual trial will focus on liability and compensatory damages, while the second phase will address liability for exemplary damages and the amount of such damages to be awarded. Simply stated, when a claim depends on the negligence of the driver, a plaintiff’s claims against a driver of a commercial motor vehicle would proceed in the first phase, with claims against the employer-defendant coming in the second phase.
However, the plaintiff is permitted to pursue a regular negligence claim, which does not require a separate finding of negligence by the driver, against the employer-defendant, such as negligent maintenance, in the first phase of the trial. Thus, defendants can expect for plaintiffs to allege these types of claims in order to put some evidence related to the defendant employer in the first phase.
HB-19 also specifically identifies certain types of evidence that are admissible in the first phase of a bifurcated trial. Such evidence is admissible only to prove ordinary negligent entrustment by the employer-defendant to the employee who was driving the employer-defendant's commercial motor vehicle at the time of the accident and is the only evidence that may be presented by the plaintiff in the first phase of the trial on the negligent entrustment claim.
The bill also provides that a defendant’s failure to comply with regulations or standards is admissible in the first stage of the bifurcated trial if (1) the evidence tends to prove that a failure to comply with the regulation or standard was a proximate cause of the bodily injury or death for which damages are sought; and (2) the regulation or standard is specific and governs, or is an element of a duty of care applicable to, the defendant, the defendant’s employee, or the defendant’s property or equipment when any of those is at issue in the action.
HB-19 also includes a presumption of admissibility of properly authenticated videos and photographs of vehicles or objects involved in an accident. Expert testimony is not required for admission. The presumption of admissibility extends even if the photograph or video tends to support or refute an assertion regarding the severity of damages or injury to an object or person involved in the accident.
The long-term effects of this bill will be interesting to monitor. It may result in reducing or limiting the liability of commercial motor vehicle companies in some cases, but the unforeseen consequences remain to be seen. With bifurcated trials, choices as to what experts to retain, whether to present certain witnesses live or via trial depositions thanks to bifurcated trials, as well as the possibility of longer trials (and accompanying attorney’s fees) all will become key factors for both sides of a case to take into account when evaluating their case. Similarly, plaintiffs’ attorneys will be seriously evaluating if any independent negligence-based claims can be asserted against commercial motor vehicle companies in order to evade the near-total bifurcation offered by HB-19. Such claims may require additional experts for both sides and increased motion practice as those claims are further defined under Texas common law. Another consideration in whether a defendant will invoke bifurcation is how the second phase will proceed when the employer-defendant becomes the focus of the jury’s attention.
Mayer LLP will be monitoring developments in this law as it begins to be applied by Texas courts and our attorneys are always happy to discuss the changes and how it will affect a given case.
1 HB-19 is codified at Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 72.051-72.055. HB-19 also adds section 38.005 to the Texas Insurance Code (relating to commercial automobile insurance reports).
2 For purposes of this article, we use the term “plaintiff” as that is typically how these cases present. However, the bill applies to “claimants,” defined as “person, including a decedent’s estate, seeking or who has sought recovery of damages in a civil action. The term includes a plaintiff, counterclaimant, cross-claimant, third-party plaintiff, and an intervenor. The term does not include a passenger in a commercial motor vehicle unless the person is an employee of the owner, lessor, lessee, or operator of the vehicle.”