The trucking industry is applauding the West Virginia Legislature for passing another piece of legislation to curb lawsuit abuse and restore balance and fairness to the civil justice system. This week, the legislature passed a bill to amend the state’s ‘seatbelt gag rule,’ which had prevented defendants in personal injury lawsuits from presenting evidence that the claimant was not wearing their safety belt.
“The trucking industry strongly believes that when a motor carrier acts wrongfully—and that wrongful conduct injures those with whom we share the road—the motor carrier should be held accountable, and those injured should be fairly compensated,” said American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear. “What we oppose, however, is the perversion of civil justice into a profit center to line the pockets of the trial bar. The so-called seatbelt gag rule is a perfect example of the sorts of rules that the plaintiffs’ bar exploits to stack the system in their favor.”
Under the new law, such evidence can now be introduced by the defense to show—through expert testimony—that the plaintiff’s failure to use a safety belt exacerbated their injuries or increased their medical bills. The trucking industry, which has been a target of lawsuit abuse by the plaintiffs’ bar, says reforms like these are necessary to address a litigation environment that has grown wildly out of control.
“Common sense measures like the bill passed today, which simply allows the jury to see that a litigant suing over medical bills wasn’t even wearing a seatbelt, is an important step to help restore balance and fairness to a system that desperately needs it,” Spear said.
The trucking industry plays an essential role in the economy and is a key provider of middle-class jobs, employing approximately 38,000 West Virginians across the state. But the industry says rampant lawsuit abuse across the country, characterized by predatory litigation and a spike in nuclear verdicts, has sent insurance rates skyrocketing to unsustainable levels. This environment is forcing many motor carriers to either scale back insurance coverage, cut into their safety budgets, or close up shop altogether.
“While the plaintiffs’ bar sees trucks as rolling piggy banks to shake down, our lawmakers are reminded that trucking accounts for one out of every 15 jobs in West Virginia,” said Traci Nelson, president of the West Virginia Trucking Association. “We thank Chairman Capito and the legislature for taking well-reasoned steps to protect all West Virginians from the harm being caused by lawsuit abuse. Their leadership should be heeded by state houses across the nation.”
Last month, representatives from the industry brought a tractor-trailer to the state house as they met with lawmakers to discuss the impact lawsuit abuse is having on motor carriers’ operations.
This week’s action followed on the heels of another bill passed by the legislature in March, Senate Bill 272, which broadly protects the owner-operator model—a critical component of trucking—by establishing a clear, bright-line test for what constitutes an independent contractor under state law. Senate Bill 272 now enables motor carriers to require safety improvements of their ICs—whether that be a device, equipment, software, training, practices, policies or procedures—without being held liable as the independent contractor’s employer.
Without that carve out, plaintiffs attorneys could use a motor carrier’s requirement of safety standards among its independent contractors as evidence of control and a basis for predatory litigation. That in turn created a disincentive for motor carriers to provide their contracted owner-operators with improved safety training or equipment.