Bill in Legislature Would Forbid Those Without Insurance From Recovering for Certain Damages in Auto Accident; Houston Auto Accident Attorney Explains Problems

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House Bill 1774, currently making its way through the Texas Legislature, would forbid people who are not carrying auto insurance from collecting noneconomic damages. Houston auto accident lawyer C. Keith Lea explains that while the bill may be well-intentioned, it would have negative consequences.

"Impeding justice is not an appropriate way to enact a policy goal, even an important one like making sure people carry liability insurance," said C. Keith Lea, Houston auto accident lawyer

A bill currently being considered by the Texas legislature would take away auto accident victims' ability to recover certain damages in a lawsuit if the victim was not carrying auto accident liability insurance. While there's nothing wrong with the legislature encouraging more people to carry liability insurance, undermining the Texas civil justice system is the wrong approach, said C. Keith Lea, Houston auto accident lawyer.

"Justice means that people are able to recover for the damages they suffer," Lea said. "Impeding justice is not an appropriate way to enact a policy goal, even an important one like making sure people carry liability insurance."

Under House Bill 1774, a person who is knowingly violating Section 601.051 of the Transportation Code is ineligible to receive noneconomic damages or exemplary damages (often called punitive damages) if injured in an auto accident, even if that person is the victim of someone else's negligence. The bill does carve out exceptions if the person at fault was intoxicated, engaged in willful misconduct or gross negligence, of if the person was fleeing the scene or driving the car in furtherance of a felony.

Section 601.051 of the Texas Transportation Code is the section requiring drivers in Texas to carry liability insurance. The bill, therefore, is a clear effort to encourage people to carry liability insurance, Lea said.

"Encouraging more people to carry liability insurance is a laudable goal," Lea said. "As a Houston auto accident attorney, I've seen how difficult it can be for victims to recover against uninsured motorists. Everyone should at least carry liability insurance."

However, depriving people of civil justice is the wrong approach, Lea said. Noneconomic damages are types of damages that are not tangible, like pain and suffering or loss of consortium. This is in contrast with economic damages, which are tangible damages, like medical bills. Exemplary damages are to punish defendants for wrongful actions, and are rarely available in auto accident cases.

"There's an unfortunate tendency to treat noneconomic damages and exemplary damages as some sort of prize," Lea said. "But as anyone suffering the extreme pain that can come from a neck injury in a car accident can tell you, damages like pain and suffering are very, very real."

For a bill to become law in Texas, it must be filed by a member of the Legislature, either in the House or the Senate. The bill must go through at least one committee, where the legislators debate its merits and make changes. If passed out of committee, it goes to the floor of the legislative house where it originated, where it is debated by the full body and either passes or fails. The bill must go through the process again in the other legislative house, or a companion bill must pass that body.

This must all happen before "sine die," or adjournment, which will be May 27. The governor must then sign the legislation for it to become law, or he can not sign but not veto, in which case it becomes law, or he can veto it.

House Bill 1774 is currently before the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee.

C. Keith Lea, of Wilhite & Lea, P.C., is a Houston personal injury lawyer who represents the victims of auto accidents in Harris, Montgomery, Fort Bend, Waller, Grimes and Washington Counties.

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