Editor’s Note: This story previously misstated what the law required a plaintiff to prove in court in order to sue a company whose employee caused injury or death in a collision. This has been corrected below.
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, a new Texas law went into effect this month that may make it more difficult for people to win damages against companies in this type of lawsuit.
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 such as Uber and Lyft. The law changes the procedure for what a plaintiff has to prove when bringing a case against a driver and their employer after a collision. In some cases the changes will limit liability for the employing company until a certain stage in a trial.
Critics of the law, such as Sauceda’s attorney Angela Tabares, told KXAN they worry a jury would not learn which company employed the driver unless the trial advanced to the second phase, when exemplary damages are assessed. She said this change could have an impact on the amount of damages awarded to her clients in these cases.
“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 of her clients.
However, in the legislative analysis for the bill, lawmakers noted that these new stipulations were necessary because “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, who 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.”
According to the bill’s analysis, 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.
For instance, 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.
Before it passed, Leach said, “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.” After its passage, Leach and supporters of the bill have emphasized that Texans are still able to hold negligent companies, and drivers, accountable.
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.
KXAN found a dozen lawsuits filed against Uber, Lyft and Amazon in Travis County over collisions in August. Statewide, 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.