Bill would cap non-economic damages for car accidents and limit employer liability

The State Capitol of Iowa reflects the sunset
The State Capitol rises above Des Moines' East Village business district. (Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images)

Noneconomic damages in a lawsuit would be capped at $750,000 for victims of car accidents, no matter how many victims were involved, under legislation that advanced Monday in the Iowa House.

House Study Bill 217 does not block car-accident victims from collecting economic damages such as those tied to medical expenses, property damages or lost wages. The cap applies to damages such as pain and suffering, mental anguish or loss of consortium of a spouse.

The bill, advocated by the Iowa Motor Truck Association, would also shield employers from some liability related to damages caused by their employees.

The proposal is a reaction to “nuclear” awards in lawsuits around the country, Dave Scott of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said.

“Our industry in recent years, has been under attack,” Scott said, citing awards of $50 million to $90 million in lawsuits. “The intent of the legislation is to bring some fairness back to what we’re calling lawsuit abuse with these nuclear verdicts.”

Lawyers who spoke to the three-member subcommittee said the bill would relieve all employers, not just trucking firms, of responsibility in a lawsuit for negligent hiring, retention, training and enforcement of work safety. The bill would also block a plaintiff from being able to use the discovery process in court to support a request for punitive damages.

Rob Conklin, a West Des Moines lawyer speaking for the Iowa Association for Justice, said the bill could, as an example, relieve a school district from liability for negligent hiring and retention of a sex offender who then abuses a child.

“All it does this benefit the groups that don’t do the bare minimum. Good employers who are already working hard, who are already training, have no benefit here,” Conklin said. “The only people that benefit are the ones that would be below that bar.”

Marc Beltrame, attorney for the motor truck association, said hiring, training and retention practices are federally regulated for commercial truckers.  “So this bill doesn’t change that. The notion that motor vehicle carriers are suddenly not going to be safe … is just not true.”

But Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, a lawyer, said the bill as written would not limit damages only for commercial drivers’ licenses but would be in effect for any car accident.

“I’ve been around here 18 years. This is one of the worst bills I’ve ever seen,” Meyer said. “… This is essentially a sex-offender and drunk-driving protection bill.”

He offered a hypothetical case in which a drunk driver causes a head-on collision and kills two parents and five children in the other car. There would be economic damages such as the loss of wages, for the parents. “But the value of those kids is way behind a million dollars,” and those damages would be noneconomic, Meyer said.

Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, chairman of the subcommittee, and Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel, said they would be willing to look at changes in the bill. It moves next to the House Commerce Committee.