In March 2019, an 18-wheeler pulled across five lanes of traffic on Washington Street in Amarillo to pick up a load of groceries for delivery. It was early, still dark. The lane-crossing was a routine but dangerous maneuver for drivers of Panhandle Transportation Group, a subsidiary of a national grocery wholesaler. As the truck was blocking the lanes, 28-year-old Laura Almanza’s car struck the 18-wheeler. She died at the scene of the crash. According to a lawsuit filed by the family in a Potter County district court, the driver of the truck had been in multiple crashes leading up to the accident. The crash devastated Almanza’s 11-year-old twin girls, says her father, Aldo Almanza. “It’s rough on them that they don’t have their mother,” he says. “I mean, who doesn’t need their mother?”
Aldo Almanza filed a lawsuit against the truck driver and the company, Panhandle Transportation Group LLC, claiming it was negligent in its business practices. “Somebody needs to be held accountable,” he says. A trial is set for June 1.
But a bill before the state Legislature would make cases like Almanza’s harder to try in the future, along with making payouts so paltry that fewer lawyers would take cases in the first place, says Almanza’s attorney, Kevin Glasheen. The bill’s language would essentially shift liability from the company to drivers who may not have the financial means to fully compensate plaintiffs. It may also prevent certain information about a company’s past accident history from being introduced as evidence. So if jurors wanted to know whether a company required drivers to undergo safety training; do routine maintenance on its trucks; or if the company’s drivers have a habit of getting into wrecks, it could be inadmissable. The trucking industry says it needs more protection from lawsuits because of skyrocketing insurance premiums.
“It’s an aggressive attack on the public’s right to try to hold these trucking companies responsible for accidents,” Glasheen says. He testified against the bill, titled House Bill 19, at a House committee hearing in March. The 13-hour hearing was replete with witnesses who had been gravely injured or had lost loved ones in truck accidents. State Representative Jeff Leach, an Allen Republican who is chair of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, is carrying the bill. “We have an unsustainable lawsuit environment that is threatening our economy,” Leach said at the outset of the March hearing. “The goal of House Bill 19 is clear: to restore fairness.”
The bill has passed a vote on the House floor and has also cleared the Senate Committee on Transportation. It’s on the calendar for a Senate floor vote today.
Supporters of the bill say frivolous lawsuits have driven insurance premiums for trucking companies sky-high, driving under small, family-operated outfits. Fewer lawsuits ostensibly would mean lower insurance premiums. “They are literally one one lawsuit away from losing their company because they can’t afford the insurance that’s covering them,” says John Esparza with the Texas Trucking Association, a trade group representing 1,000 member companies.
Texas counts the highest number of fatal big-rig wrecks in the United States. The number of truck fatalities here has more than doubled since 2009. The most recent large-scale, federal study of truck wrecks shows brake failure and speeding are the most frequent causes of the incidents. Safety advocates speculate that the proliferation of cell phones, along with a lack of speed limiting devices and other safety mechanisms, has contributed to the increase in collisions in recent years, and the federal government is embarking on an updated study to identify emerging trends.
It’s not the only attempt this session to bend Texas’ civil courts to reduce liability for corporations Leach is also carrying House Bill 3659, which seeks to strengthen lawsuit protections for nursing homes and other health care facilities during pandemics. Nursing homes in particular have faced allegations that substandard care led to resident deaths; Leach’s bill could make it more difficult for their families to seek redress through the courts. Governor Greg Abbott has also supported efforts to protect businesses from legal liability for failing to adequately protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics say such efforts could make it harder for employees who got sick at work to sue. U.S. Senator John Cornyn unsuccessfully proffered a similar initiative in Congress.
Abbott, Patrick, and the Republican-led Texas Legislature have in the past found success in changing the way civil courts operate, a process that’s commonly referred to as “tort reform.” In 2017, Patrick made the issue of lawsuits over insurance claims for hail and wind damage a top priority, giving insurance companies more leeway not to pay policyholders after major storms. In 2019, Abbott appointed Jane Bland to sit on the state Supreme Court; she came highly recommended by the co-founder of Texas for Lawsuit Reform, a politically connected lobbying group that aims to curb lawsuits in Texas. If Abbott and company succeed with reforms this session, it’ll cap a nealy 30-year battle to upend the state’s civil court system.
Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) is also the biggest backer of the trucking legislation. The group was created in 1994 by a group of influential business people who thought private companies were being sued too frequently, and for too much. In the early 2000s, they sold then-Governor George W. Bush on the platform—Bush eventually made the issue a major campaign point, and TRL and its allies have successfully lowered lawsuit risk for doctors, auto manufacturers, apartment owners, and others, all while increasingly pulling the Texas Supreme Court into its fold.
The group is one of the most influential corporate lobbies in Texas politics. Its political action committee has showered the Capitol and the rest of the state with at least $69 million since 2008. In 2020, approximately $1 million went to State Representative Jeff Leach, the author of the trucking bill. When the Legislature is not in session, Leach is an attorney at Gray Reed, the monied Dallas law firm that mounts legal defenses for trucking companies. Leach did not return a request for comment for this story.
Asked whether TLR’s contributions to Leach’s campaign may have led him to sponsor the bill, Lucy Nashed, the group’s communications director, said she finds Leach to be “a very capable and adaptable lawyer who gets this issue and understands the process and the problem. And I think that’s where his interest in this legislation comes in.” Nashed also says that she believes that altering the way trucking lawsuits play out in court “is really an issue of the entire Texas economy, which runs on commercial vehicles.”
Others see it differently. “The bill protects companies who do not follow safety guidelines and exposes families who are driving on the road to unsafe trucks and fatal accidents,” says Representative Julie Johnson, a Dallas Democrat who sits on Leach’s committee. She says lawmakers could achieve the same goal of reducing insurance premiums for trucking companies by simply passing a law to cap the costs or by requiring the installation of devices on trucks that would save lives when accidents occur. “But this bill just rewards bad actors,” Johnson says.
John Lannen of the Institute for Safer Trucking agrees. Two implements he suggests: A “speed limiter” locks a truck into a top speed, usually 65 or 60 mph. Most modern trucks come with speed limiters already installed, but some Texans companies don’t bother to activate them. Lannen also recommends “underride guards,” which would prevent passenger vehicles from sliding underneath big-rigs during wrecks, along with better lighting to make trucks more visible at night.
Underride guards could have saved Leslie Rosenberg and her daughter, Sophie, whose vehicle slid underneath an improperly lighted truck, killing them. Jay Rosenberg, who is still mourning the loss of his wife and daughter, went to the Capitol to testify against House Bill 19. “My wife had no chance to even see [the truck],” he says. The bill would embolden trucking companies to become even more unsafe. “You hear the other stories of the people who testify about the loss they’ve suffered and you realize the magnitude [of the problem],” he says. “You know the impact it had on your life and on the world that your family inhabits. The key to that is holding people responsible.”