Iowa Court of Appeals Construes a Defendant’s Scope of Liability

  • May 27, 2022

Legal Update by Attorney Tyler Smith and Law Clerk Jordan Gehlhaar

The Iowa Court of Appeals just ruled on the scope of liability in Ross v. Walker.

On a foggy evening, while traveling westbound in the right lane of Interstate 80, a driver attempted to make a left-handed U-turn across a median. However, when turning, he collided with a vehicle in the left lane. Following the accident both westbound lanes were closed, stopping traffic. Approximately 20 minutes later, a couple driving westbound approached the stopped traffic and rear-ended a vehicle. To recover for their personal injuries, the couple sued the driver who made the U-turn, alleging his negligent driving caused their injuries.

The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that as a matter of law, the plaintiffs’ accident was beyond the scope of liability associated with his U-turn attempt. As an element of their claim, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s negligence was a cause of their injury. Iowa courts use the “scope of liability” standard to determine causation. The standard is grounded in fairness and limits an actor’s legal liability to those who are within the scope of the risks created by their actions. A court looks at the facts of the case and asks: What risks made this defendant’s conduct tortious or actionable? Is the plaintiff’s harm at issue a result of any of those risks?

Applying this standard in the Ross case, the court found the initial collision was clearly within the range of harms risked. Additionally, the court found that making a U-turn across traffic on a foggy night also risks a resulting pile up of vehicles and a vehicle running into the pile up. Therefore, in the court’s view, the plaintiffs who rear-ended the traffic pileup were within the scope of liability created by the action of the U-turn.

On the one hand, this decision broadens the scope of potential liability and makes outcomes less predictable. On the other hand, this decision further confirms that motions for summary judgment on negligence are becoming less and less likely to prevail making such cases more predictable from litigation procedure standpoint: cases such as these are decided on facts as found by a jury, not on a legal basis as determined by a judge.

Peddicord Wharton will continue to monitor case law on this issue.

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