On June 16, 2021, Governor Abbott signed into law Texas House Bill 19. HB 19 goes into effect September 1, 2021 and applies to actions filed on or after that date. In relevant part, the law will be found at sections 72.051-72.055 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. The new law applies to lawsuits involving commercial motor vehicle accidents, its purpose to curb the increasing amount of unnecessary litigation against persons and entities not at fault and the corresponding detrimental effect on insurance costs.
Under HB 19, a defendant in an action involving a commercial motor vehicle accident may, within certain time limits, move for trial to be bifurcated into two phases. If this motion is timely made, the trial court shall grant it. During the first phase of trial, the finder of fact shall determine liability for, and the amount of, compensatory damages. During the second phase of trial, the finder of fact shall determine liability for, and the amount of, exemplary damages. Moreover, if an employer stipulates within the time for moving to bifurcate trial that the driver was its employee and was acting within the scope of employment at the time of the accident, the plaintiff may not, during the first phase of trial, present evidence regarding an ordinary negligence claim against the employer, such as for negligent entrustment. However, as an exception to this general rule, parties may present during the first phase of trial evidence regarding a limited list of violations and compliances to prove negligent entrustment of the employer. Moreover, plaintiffs may still bring claims during the first phase against employers if the claims do not require a finding of negligence by a driver, such as for negligent maintenance.
HB 19 also limits the type of evidence allowed at trial. Evidence of a defendant’s failure to comply with regulations or standards will be admissible in the first portion of the trial only if:
- The evidence tends to prove that failure to comply with the regulation or standard was a proximate cause of the bodily injury or death for which damages are sought; and
- 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.
This will serve to limit plaintiffs’ fishing expeditions, and unnecessary detours during trial, into commercial vehicle companies’ operations.
Further, under the new law, a trial court may not require expert testimony for admission of photographs or videos of the subject vehicle involved in the accident except as required for authentication. Properly authenticated photographs and videos are presumed admissible even if they tend to refute or support assertions regarding the severity of the accident or injuries
Finally, the law requires the Texas Department of Insurance to conduct studies through 2026 regarding the effect of HB 19 on premiums, deductibles, and coverage for commercial automobile insurance.
HB 19 will hopefully reduce frivolous claims, litigation expenses, and the time of trials in cases involving commercial motor vehicle accidents.