CALA: We must rein in lawsuits against commercial vehicle owners and operators
By Luis Montoya
WESLACO, Texas – Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse leaders are applauding legislation aimed at reining in lawsuits against commercial vehicle owners and operators.
The legislation CALA supports is House Bill 19, authored state Rep. Jeff Leach, chairman of the Texas House Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence Committee.
Its Senate sponsor is state Sen. Larry Taylor of Pearland. The legislation just passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 31-0. However, because an amendment was added it must now go back to the House for approval.
Sergio Contreras, president and CEO of Weslaco-based Rio Grande Valley CALA, said that while other types of personal injury lawsuits are decreasing in Texas, motor vehicle litigation is increasing in the state.
Contreras pointed to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration which showed the number of motor vehicle lawsuits jumping 118 percent between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2019. In contrast, Contreras said, other types of injury and damage cases decreased seven percent during the same period.
Contreras said if not reined in, lawsuit abuse against owners and operators of commercial vehicles could land Texas back on the ‘Judicial Hellholes’ list. The annual list from the American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF) flags areas of the country where lawsuit abuse is rampant, and justice is not evenly applied. Texas has escaped the list in recent years.
“It would be easy to chalk up our past reforms and call it game over on lawsuit abuse in our state, but that’s simply not the case,” Contreras said. “We hope the Legislature takes up these reforms to rein in trucking lawsuit abuse as quickly as possible.”
Contreras pointed out that nearly 88 percent of commercial carriers in Texas operate 10 or fewer vehicles.
“HB 19 supports commercial vehicle operators in Texas; they are small businesses that simply cannot afford the risk of an abusive lawsuit or the increased cost of insurance,”Contreras said.
“Abusive lawsuits kill Texas jobs. As we work to recover from the pandemic, we should be doing everything we can to create jobs and strengthen our economy – and to help stop lawsuit abuse. That’s why we support House Bill 19.”
Bobby Jenkins, a board member of CALA of Central Texas in Austin said that as a result of the higher number of lawsuits against commercial vehicle owners and operators, insurance rates are skyrocketing, whether or not a company has even had an accident. Jenkins said this has already driven some trucking companies out of business and could mean higher costs for goods and services for consumers.
“Any truck or car with a company logo on it is a target for abusive lawsuits,” Jenkins said. “No matter the size of the vehicle or industry, and no matter how minor the accident or who was at fault, commercial delivery and service vehicles are susceptible to these questionable lawsuits. If your neighborhood pharmacy makes deliveries in a car with a logo on its door, that business is a potential target of an abusive lawsuit. So is everyone from ride-share services to restaurant delivery vehicles to plumbers.”
D’Anne Buquet, executive director of Bay Area CALA in Corpus Christi, said without immediate reform, many small businesses will continue to be saddled with increased costs of doing business. At the same time, Buquet said, the state could see more trucking businesses shutter their operations in Texas.
“We all could see higher costs for the goods and services we need and depend on, especially right now during the pandemic,” Buquet said.
Asked about HB 19, Buquet said: “This legislation is vital if we hope to curtail the questionable lawsuits impacting the owners and operators of commercial or company vehicles – the vast majority of which are small businesses. This bill includes needed reforms to clarify the rules for how these lawsuits are handled and to ensure that juries have the facts they need to reach fair verdicts.”
Amber Pearce, chair of CALA of Central Texas, agreed.
“By targeting abusive and frivolous lawsuits that plagued our civil justice system for decades, Texas lawmakers have helped ensure our courts are a place for justice, not greed,” Pearce said. “It’s time to turn our attention to reforming the persistent attack on commercial vehicle operators and owners.”
Contreras said more information about the ATRF 2020-2021 Judicial Hellholes report can be found here. He said Texans could learn more about the history of lawsuit reform in Texas here. For more information about CALA, Contreras said, visit www.tala.com.
Keep Texas Trucking Coalition
The Keep Texas Trucking Coalition released the following statement regarding the passage of House Bill 19 by the Texas Senate:
“The Texas Senate has taken decisive action today to stand with Texas small businesses against abusive, job killing lawsuits by unanimously passing HB 19. Lawsuit abuse is not a partisan issue, and throughout the legislative process, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have come together to provide feedback and support this common-sense fix to a serious problem that affects every sector of Texas’ economy.
“We are grateful for the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who named abusive commercial vehicle litigation as a priority item this session, as well as Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) for helping build broad support for this legislation in the Senate, including cosponsors Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) and Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen).
“HB 19 proves that Texas can protect the rights of victims who are injured by the negligence of others on our roadways without letting abusive lawsuits decimate small businesses and the commercial vehicle network we rely on every day. We hope the Texas House will quickly concur with the bill that was passed by the Senate, and send this critical legislation to the governor’s desk.
“With more than 600 members spanning businesses and associations of all sizes across nearly every sector of the Texas economy, the Keep Texas Trucking Coalition is working to ensure the Texas economy, small businesses and employers are not harmed by abusive commercial vehicle litigation. For more information, please visit www.keeptexastrucking.com.”
Bay Scoggin, director of the consumer advocacy organization TexPIRG, had a different take on HB 19 than CALA and Keep Texas Trucking. Scoggin said the bill would pervert the incentives designed to keep companies accountable.
“Litigation is consumers’ last resort, but it’s currently our most important deterrent to deadly negligence and wrongdoing by commercial vehicle companies,” Scoggin said.
Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen Texas, said Texas owns the dubious distinction of having more large truck crashes than any other state in the nation in each of the last four years. In 2019, Shelley said, Texas had more large truck crashes than the neighboring states of Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi, Nebraska, Kansas, and New Mexico combined.
Shelley said: “This bill (HB 19) turns its back on the hundreds of Texas families who experience tragedy in commercial truck accidents each year. It limits corporate liability and throws roadblocks into the recovery process for grieving families. Texas has a series truck crash problem, but HB 19 is far from a solution.”
Ware Wendell, executive director of Texas Watch, said: “Texas already has the most dangerous roads in the nation. This legislation will only put all of us at greater threat. We need to improve safety, not give careless corporations less incentive to follow the rules of the road.”