New Texas law could shield trucking, rideshare and delivery companies from lawsuits after crashes

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — On her lunch break from her south Austin teaching job, Christina Sauceda was heading down her usual route when she suddenly saw a car swerving toward her.

“Just like, head on into me. I didn’t even have time to really react,” she said.

She said the other driver hit her car so hard, her glasses flew off her face, and her knees hit the underside of her dashboard. In the aftermath of the crash, she heard the man tell police he was working for Uber Eats. It wasn’t until days later she really felt the pain.

“I was so stiff; I couldn’t even like turn my neck,” Sauceda said, noting she had to take off several days of work.

On top of that, her car was totaled. However, the most frustrating part of the experience was trying to get in contact with the other driver’s personal insurance and Uber’s insurance.

“No one was taking liability. I couldn’t get a rental car, so I was on the phone so much. I was not feeling well. I was injured. I was in bed,” she said.

Now, she’s wrapped up in a civil lawsuit against the driver and Uber. However, lawsuits such as this one might be far less common after a new Texas law went into effect this month.

Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) brought forth House Bill 19 during the 2021 legislative session in order to prevent “unjust and excessive” lawsuits against commercial vehicles, which includes trucking, delivery and even rideshare companies. Since the bill passed, a plaintiff now has to demonstrate “grossly negligent” behavior in order to sue a company whose employee — the driver — caused injury or even a death in a collision. Otherwise, only the driver would be liable for their actions, not the company itself.

According to the legislative analysis for the bill, the number of motor vehicle lawsuits have increased by 118%, while the number of collisions have increased by single-digit percentages over the last 11 years.

The Texas Department of Transportation’s Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Facts note 3,896 people died in collisions in 2020 — up 7.54% from the number of deaths recorded in 2019. Meanwhile 205,498 people were injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020, a nearly 20% decrease from 2019.

The bill analysis also reads, “In many instances, the person being sued is not at fault, yet must spend increasing amounts of money in court and to purchase insurance coverage.”

The bill was strongly supported by trucking industry advocates, and the president of the Texas Trucking Association said they were “under attack.”

“We’re seeing dramatic increases in large verdicts,” John Esparza told KXAN in the spring.

Bobby Jenkins, owner of ABC Home and Commercial Services, explained, “It’s really, in my opinion, gotten out of hand, and it’s made it very, very tough for a company like mine to obtain liability insurance on my vehicles.”

The bill still allows people to bring lawsuits against the company in cases where there can be proven “gross negligence” on the part of their employee, the driver.

Before it passed, Leach emphasized, “If there’s any part of the bill that would hinder a Texans’ ability to seek those damages, then the bill won’t move. I promise you that.”

In August, a dozen lawsuits were filed against Uber, Lyft and Amazon in Travis County over collisions. Statewide, KXAN found more than 100 lawsuits filed against the same companies. So far in September, KXAN found just one lawsuit filed against Lyft in Travis County and seven lawsuits filed across the state against those three companies over collisions.

After the law went into effect Sept. 1, Sauceda’s lawyer Angela Tabares said she’s worried about what sort of compensation her clients and other crash victims will be able to obtain moving forward.

“In all reality, their medical bills probably exceed the amount they can get compensated from the other insurance companies, so they are just trying to get back to where they were they day before they were violently struck,” she said. “When I tell this to insurance adjusters, I’ve had some of them laugh and say, ‘How could this have ruined your clients life?’ For many of them, it’s their only mode of transportation.”

Tabares, an associate attorney at Cesar Ornelas Law, said she believed the law was in place to protect the companies themselves, not their employees out on the road.

“It’s kind of a punch in a gut that people like teachers, for example, can’t get what they deserve when it comes to being emotionally and physically injured,” Sauceda said.

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