Commercial vehicle liability immunity headed to governor despite opposition

Crash your rental car, or get hit by a truck? Legislation headed to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk would bar you from using a commercial vehicle’s outdated safety equipment against the lessor in a civil lawsuit.

Lawmakers slipped the immunity provision into House Bill 1162, a Bureau of Motor Vehicles agency bill, in a negotiated final draft released Friday in the closing hours of this year’s legislative session.

The move drew bipartisan criticism in the Senate, where the legislation squeaked through on a 26-21 vote. The House approved it 70-28.

“We should not be putting issues in agency bills,” Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, said on the floor Friday evening.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, noted the provision never got “vetted” in a Senate committee, where the public has a right to testify.

Sen. Michael Crider, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said the provision was deemed “not germane” to its original bill and thus was relocated.

A House committee previously amended it into a different Senate bill.

Fixing a ‘moving target’?

Crider said attorneys are increasingly hitting commercial vehicle lessors with negligence lawsuits after crashes — alleging the crashes could’ve been prevented or mitigated with the installation of optional safety equipment.

“It’s really kind of this nebulous moving target. I don’t know how you’d ever pin it down,” Crider said of that negligence theory.

But he said it’s having real impacts: lessors saw premiums rise 50% 2015-2019, then double between 2021 and 2023.

The language therefore removes civil liability for lessors of commercial vehicles on claims they had a duty to install optional equipment. They’d still be liable after crashes involving vehicles missing required safety retrofits or upgrades.

“This is an effort to balance the fairness in this discussion,” Crider said.

Taylor argued the change would leave other Hoosiers vulnerable.

“The person who’s been injured can’t bring up the fact that (the vehicle doesn’t) have things like a wider mirror, or a camera, or something that makes the wheels stop quicker because (of the) heavy load,” he said.

“We are taking the side of the commercial trucking industry at the detriment of our own Hoosier taxpayers,” Taylor added.

Freeman asserted lawmakers were being inconsistent by approving a bill allowing juries to know when crash victims weren’t wearing seatbelts, then keeping safety equipment information out of courtrooms.

“Folks, we need to pick a lane and we need to stay in it,” he said.

But Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said there was “no hypocrisy.”

“There are a lot of vehicles such as trucks that weren’t manufactured with seatbelts, and they’re currently driving those on the road today,” Young said. “And we don’t make anybody go back and put in seat belts in a vehicle today that weren’t manufactured with those. … There is no hypocrisy here, or change. It’s just a matter of fairness.”

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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