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Iowa lawmakers advance bill shielding trucking companies from negligence
Iowans affected by semi crashes plead with legislators to abandon proposal
DES MOINES — Iowans whose family members were killed or permanently disabled in crashes involving commercial truck drivers pleaded with lawmakers Thursday to abandon a bill that shields trucking companies from liability for direct negligence in many cases if their drivers are involved in a serious crash.
The measure also would limit non-economic damages arising from pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, mental anguish and loss of companionship and enjoyment of life to $1 million in lawsuits against the owner or operator of a commercial vehicle for incidents resulting in personal injury or death.
“Putting a cap on damages in lawsuits regardless of the person, the situation or how negligent someone is puts a government-mandated price on human life,” said Michelle Fields of Jefferson, whose husband was killed in 2017 after a tractor-trailer hauling grain for a local cooperative rear-ended the open-cab tractor he was driving on the shoulder of a county road.
The driver of the semi was later convicted on misdemeanor charges for drug possession, failure to maintain control of the vehicle and failure to stop in assured clear distance.
Fields, now a single mother of two, said her husband, like most farmers, had loans for equipment, land and buildings — only half of which his life insurance policy covered. She hired attorneys who reached a settlement with the insurance companies. The effort took four years, with 45 percent of the total settlement going toward attorney fees and legal expenses.
The family sued the cooperative for negligence, alleging it failed to ensure the driver exhibited the “necessary skills, ability and experience to safely operate” the truck. The lawsuit also alleges the cooperative knew, or should have known, about the driver’s drug history.
House Study Bill 114 and its companion in the Senate would bar people from suing trucking companies over an employee’s harmful conduct due to “direct negligence in hiring, training, supervising, or trusting the employee,” excluding cases where the driver is under the influence of drugs, alcohol or other substances.
Statehouse Republicans continue to push forward the bill that supporters say would help Iowa businesses that rely on the trucking industry.
The bill failed to pass the Iowa House last year, but Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters he expects to move forward on the measure this year.
That is despite opposition from some House Republicans, who say the measure places an arbitrary and capricious limit on financial rewards to Iowans who are severely injured by commercial vehicles and erodes their right to just compensation.
“The American jury system is built on plaintiffs being able to recover their damages, economic and non-economic … based on evidence presented to a jury — the 12 people that sit in a box and listen to the evidence and look the plaintiff in eye,” said Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, an attorney who did personal injury and insurance claim work. “They are the ones in the American legal system that are entitled to determine how much pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life they’re able to recover. … It is, in my mind, very arrogant of us to even contemplate this.”
A House committee Thursday narrowly advanced the bill, 11-10, making it eligible for floor debate.
"Iowa ranks as one of the top states to do business. We're just trying to keep it that way and avoid some of the nuclear verdicts that we've seen in a lot of other states,” Rep. Bill Gustoff, R-Des Moines, said during the committee hearing on the bill.
The Senate gave initial approval Thursday in subcommittee to the companion bill, Senate Study Bill 1114.
“I believe that, having looked at other states, this bill does need some work,” said Sen. Michael Bousselot, R-Ankeny, but that the legislation “is a balanced approach.”
Business groups and supporters from the trucking and insurance industries — including Cedar Rapids-based trucking company CRST — said the bill would prevent overzealous and crippling verdicts that award tens of millions of dollars in injury and wrongful death lawsuits against trucking companies. They also argued the bill would keep insurance rates for businesses down and provide predictability to commercial vehicle owners on their level of liability.
Opponents, including trial lawyers, the Iowa State Bar Association and justice-based groups, said high-dollar verdicts are not an issue in Iowa, which they said has the nation’s fourth lowest commercial vehicle insurance rates.
Kellie Paschke, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association for Justice, said the negligence protection measures will shield trucking companies when they hire “bad actors,” such as employees with known drug addictions, or fail to follow proper safety and maintenance standards.
“Essentially what this bill does is make the truck driver, the employee, the scapegoat for bad decisions of the employer,” Paschke said.
Chip Baltimore, a former state lawmaker with Trial Lawyers 4 Justice, said the bill will only keep injured Iowans from just compensation.
Baltimore called it “legislative surgery with a baseball bat.”
“You don’t bludgeon an entire group of citizens and punish them for a perceived problem you can’t even wrap your heads around or identify with facts and data, and that’s what I fear you are doing here,” he said.
If it becomes law, Democratic lawmakers said Iowa would become the first state with such protections for trucking companies.
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