Notable Court Rulings
Beverage v. ALCOA et al.
Iowa Code Section 686B.7(5) provides, “A defendant in an asbestos action or silica action shall not be liable for exposures from a product or component part made or sold by a third party.”
On behalf of Alcoa, attorney Donna Miller raised the Section 686B.7(5) defense and obtained summary judgment before the District Court. Plaintiffs appealed. Robert Livingston of the Stuart Tinley Law Firm argued before the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Court. Plaintiffs sought further review from the Iowa Supreme Court. Mr. Livingston argued the case before the Iowa Supreme Court.
On June 17, 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision in this case ruling that Iowa Code Section 686B.7(5) codifies the bare metal defense despite the Statute’s textual limit on liability -insulating defendants from liability for exposures from a product or component part made or sold by a third party. In a dissenting opinion written by Justice Waterman and concurred in by Justice Mansfield and Justice McDermott, the dispositive nature of the language of Section 686B.7(5) was the beginning and the end. The term “asbestos action” is statutorily defined as “a claim for damages or other civil or equitable relief presented in a civil action arising out of, based on, or related to the health effects of exposure to asbestos.” Because Alcoa did not make or sell asbestos or an asbestos-containing product as textually specified by Section 686B.7(5), the dissenting opinion would have held that Alcoa is entitled to summary judgment.
For more information on this case, see https://www.iowacourts.gov/iowa-courts/supreme-court/supreme-court-opinions/case/19-1852
Hoffman v. Clark
In this case the plaintiff was represented by Seth Katz from the Shepherd Law Firm, and Robert Livingston from the Stuart Tinley Law Firm. The plaintiff obtained a jury verdict in the amount of $11,000,000.00. The defendant appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment. The defendant sought and obtained further review from the Iowa Supreme Court.
On June 17, 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision. The Court elected to consider the issue of whether the verdict was excessive in compensating plaintiff for defamation spanning a period of years using five different Facebook accounts under two aliases and falsely reporting that plaintiff was dishonest, engaged in bribery, and sold dangerous products out of greed. The Court found that the jury verdict was substantiated by the egregious conduct of defendant vis-à-vis plaintiff personally. The Court held that a new trial was warranted as to other damages awarded for the plaintiff company including punitive damages or, in the alternative, the plaintiff could accept a reduction in the verdict, which must be done within 30 days after the Iowa Supreme Court issues the procedendo.
For more information on this case, see https://www.iowacourts.gov/iowa-courts/supreme-court/supreme-court-opinions/case/19-2086
Estate of Susan Farrell v. State of Iowa, et al.
On November 23, 2021, the Iowa Court of Appeals released its opinion in the Estate of Susan Farrell v. State of Iowa, et al. At issue in this appeal was the continued viability and applicability of the public duty doctrine. Plaintiffs sued the State of Iowa, City of West Des Moines, City of Waukee, and various general contractors, engineers, and subcontractors for their collective efforts in developing and building the Grand Prairie Parkway Interchange over Interstate 80. The Grand Prairie Parkway Interchange was the first diverging-diamond interchange to be constructed in Iowa. On March 26, 2016, an intoxicated driver traveled on the Interchange and down the off-ramp and onto Interstate-80 where he collided head-on with a vehicle in which Des Moines Police Officer, Susan Farrell, was riding.
The Court of Appeals held that the public duty doctrine is alive and well and applicable to this situation where the intoxicated driver was the instrumentality of harm. The Court distinguished other cases where the harm was caused by an instrumentality owned and operated by a governmental entity. In short, the public duty doctrine is applicable when the allegations center on a governmental failure to protect the general public from somebody else’s instrumentality. There was also discussion in the opinion about an exception to the public duty doctrine when there was a special relationship – finding that Iowa’s roadways are held open to the public and no special relationship existed between the governmental defendants and Officer Farrell.
Robert Livingston and Kristopher Madsen represented the State of Iowa and City of West Des Moines. Apryl DeLange represented the City of Waukee.
It is expected that Plaintiffs will seek further review of this opinion by the Iowa Supreme Court.
Farrell v. State of Iowa et al
This case focuses on the public-duty doctrine. Robert Livingston and Kristopher Madsen from the Stuart Tinley Law Firm represented two of the named defendants. The public-duty doctrine is a no-duty determination historically applicable when a governmental entity owes a duty to the public in general. The doctrine was examined by the Iowa Supreme Court on further review after the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court and applied the doctrine to defeat Plaintiff’s claims.
The factual lens through which the Iowa Supreme Court analyzed the public-duty doctrine was tragic. A third-party driver crossed the Grand Prairie Parkway Interchange and went the wrong way down the off-ramp headed westbound in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 80. He swerved around several cars and semi-tractor trailers before running head-on into the vehicle in which the plaintiff was a passenger.
In its May 20, 2022, Opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the public-duty doctrine is inapplicable when the harm is caused by a third-party so long as it is alleged that a governmental instrumentality played a part in the cause of the harm. According to the Court, the third-party’s errant driving could not be treated as an intervening and superseding cause to absolve the government from responsibility for creating a confusing interchange – as alleged by Plaintiff. “[The third-party driver’s] fault is intertwined with the fault of the governmental defendants, who allegedly negligently designed and prematurely opened the dangerous interchange used by the [third-party] driver to enter interstate 80 in the wrong direction.”
Unmentioned in the Decision were controlling principles governing no-duty determinations under the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm or its adoption by Thompson v. Kaczinski, 774 N.W.2d 829, 834 (Iowa 2009). Those controlling principles prevent the concept of foreseeability from entering into a no-duty determination. Thus, unanswered is the question of whether the public-duty doctrine applies when a plaintiff alleges wrongful conduct by a governmental party that foreseeably caused a third-party to harm another. In the parlance of the Iowa Supreme Court this case dealt with multiple causes of harm – one being from a third-party and the other the alleged failures by the government to make the roadways safe (and protect the traveling public from third-parties).
For more information see, https://www.iowacourts.gov/iowa-courts/supreme-court/supreme-court-opinions/case/20-1037