Guest Column: A Crisis on Rural Texas Roads
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
There is a crisis in the trucking industry in Texas. In 2019, there were over 39,000 commercial vehicle crashes that resulted in 619 deaths and innumerable injuries. Texas leads the nation in large truck crashes. In addition to those killed, tens of millions of dollars in medical costs have been incurred and many have been crippled for life. Texans For Lawsuit Reform, an independent lobby group being paid by the trucking industry is responding to this crisis by asking the Texas Legislature to take away the rights of Texans injured and killed by negligent truckers. HB 19 has been proposed to protect the trucking companies causing the carnage.
The bad apple trucking companies make it tougher on the majority of companies who properly train and monitor their drivers to drive safely. Make no mistake bad trucking companies, most of whom come into Texas from other states or Mexico are often underinsured, routinely operated by dangerous drivers with terrible driving histories who too often are operating unsafe trucks that are a crash waiting to happen. The law says that truckers must not drive over over a certain amount of hours and must keep careful logs to prove that they are driving legally. Still many truckers doctor their logs. Obviously, the trucking company should be auditing those logs and firing drivers who cheat. In reality they enable or encourage the cheating by failing to do the audits as the law requires.
HB 19 would allow the trucking companies to escape liability altogether by stipulating that the driver was in the course of his employment at the time of the wreck. The legal doctrine of Respondeat Superior (which provides that employers are responsible for the conduct of their employees) would disappear for these truck owners. Trucking companies would hide behind HB 19 and juries would never know the real reason the crash occurred. The sponsors of this bill don’t want companies to have to explain why they fail to monitor logs, hire dangerous drivers, don’t do background checks, refuse to maintain trucks and generally put more emphasis on profits than safety. This bill absolves companies from any independent compliance with federal or state safety regulations, such as for training and maintenance on their vehicles. Those safety regulations were promulgated to save lives after some tragic crash.
Under this proposed bill, trucking companies also get special treatment for appeals. If the company doesn’t like a judge’s ruling it will have a right to appeal the ruling immediately and stop the court proceeding for indefinite periods of time. No one else in Texas gets these special rights to appeal, but Texans for Lawsuit Reform thinks we need to give them to out of state trucking companies. The trial delays caused by these proposed appellate rules will be devastating to families already broken by the death or injury of a loved one.
Finally, if an injured Texan does eventually get to trial and “against all odds” is awarded a judgment that involves future damages, the bill allows the negligent trucking company that caused the injury to decide when and under what circumstances the injured person can be paid.
The payment plans most likely chosen by companies to pay the future damages would be structured in ways no ethical financial adviser would ever approve.
HB 19 is a bad bill taking up time from a Legislature that should be dealing with ERCOT, high utility bills, and getting Texas back to work from COVID. Rural Texans are on the front lines with these dangerous trucks. Worst of all, HB 19 doesn’t do one thing to make Texans safer on their highways. Write your Representative and Senator and tell them to vote against HB 19.
Guy Choate is a lawyer in San Angelo, Texas and partner in the law firm of Webb, Stokes & Sparks