Senate passes trucking company liability limits

By: - February 22, 2023 7:58 pm

The Iowa Senate voted Wednesday to limit liability for trucking companies whose drivers cause accidents. (Stock photo via Canva)

The Senate passed legislation Wednesday to limit the noneconomic damages a victim in an accident involving a trucking company can receive.

Senate File 228 puts a $2 million cap on noneconomic damages in lawsuits against trucking companies whose employees caused injury, death or other damages while on the job. That amount is an increase adopted during floor debate from the previous $1 million cap proposed.

Noneconomic damages might include pain and suffering, emotional distress and loss of consortium of a spouse or a parents’ loss of a child.

The bill passed 30-19, with one senator absent. GOP Sens. Mark Lofgren, Sandy Salmon, Jeff Taylor and Cherielynn Westrich voted against the legislation alongside Democrats.

Opponents argued the limits prioritize trucking companies over Iowans. While supporters said the limits will protect companies against “nuclear verdicts” where juries award millions in damages, Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said the bill does nothing to protect the “nuclear” consequences families live with in the aftermath of these accidents.

But Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood, said those speaking against the bill did not understand the realities of Iowa’s commercial motor vehicle industry. Dickey, who serves as chairman of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said claims that these verdicts do not happen in Iowa are untrue.

The association has 50 board members, and the vast majority are or have defended their companies in “bogus” cases the bill targets, he said.

“I am personally aware several of these. They’re taking place in Iowa right now,” Dickey said. “For every one of these bogus claims that gets filed, a legitimate claim gets put off or delayed.”

The Senate approved two amendments from the bill’s floor manager Sen. Mike Bousselot, R-Ankeny, including one to expand the types of vehicles that could receive liability protection under the bill. Proposals from opponents of the bill failed, such as requiring trucking companies to meet minimum hiring standards to qualify for liability limits.

One of the failed amendments proposed only giving liability limits to trucking companies based in Iowa. Wahls said by voting this measure down, his colleagues showed that the legislation was not about Iowa businesses.

“This bill takes Iowans on a very dangerous road,” Wahls said. “And it’s going to leave Iowa families to pick up the pieces when an out-of-state trucking company and the insurance industry win the legislation lottery.”

It’s the second liability limit bill approved by the Senate this session. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law limiting noneconomic damages against doctors and hospitals to medical malpractice cases earlier in February. The law imposes caps of $1 million for clinics and doctors and $2 million for hospitals in noneconomic damages for medical malpractice cases where the injury caused the loss or impairment of a bodily function, disfigurement or death of the patient.

The same debates over whether the government should put a financial limit on a person’s life apply to the trucking bill, Lofgren, R-Muscatine, said. He proposed eliminating the damage caps if the accident resulted in death, but his amendment failed.

“Medical malpractice and this bill are really similar,” Lofgren said. “And obviously, families that lose their family members from a truck, an injury that happens or whatever, they love their families just like those that lose their family with medical malpractice.”

Supporters of the bill argued that liability limits in these accidents do not devalue human life. Bousselot emphasized that economic damages — compensation for the financial losses and medical care costs caused by an accident — and punitive damages are not limited by the bill. He said this bill is not taking away money from Iowans, but is meant to target the trial lawyers who profit off of these cases, and provide insurance stability to the trucking industry.

Bousselot pushed back on the assertion that limiting trucking firms’ liability would make Iowa roads less safe.

“But it was brought up: What are we doing to prevent accidents — accidents on our roads and accidents involving the deadliest vehicles?” Bousselot said. “I can tell you the people that are leading, that are at the vanguard of protections on the road: commercial motor vehicles and trucking companies, who have more automation, more analytics, more cameras to make sure that their drivers and that those trucks are doing the right thing, to make sure that accidents don’t happen.”

The bill will next be available for consideration by the House, which passed its version of the legislation, House File 201, through the committee process earlier in February.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.