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Iowa bill capping commercial vehicle lawsuits advances
Legislation would cap non-economic damages in jury verdict at $1M
DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that would cap non-economic damages in lawsuits against truckers and commercial drivers.
The bill, House Study Bill 114, would limit damages related to death, injuries and other non-economic damages to $1 million in lawsuits involving commercial vehicle companies. The cap would be indexed to the rate of inflation every two years. It also provides heightened protection from liability for trucking companies in many cases when a driver acts with negligence.
During a subcommittee meeting, supporters from trucking and business groups said the bill would prevent so-called “nuclear” 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 in the state.
David Scott, a lobbyist for the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said the goal of the legislation was to provide certainty to commercial vehicle owners on their level of liability in accidents.
“We brought this bill forward in hopes to bring some fairness to nuclear verdicts around the country,” he said. “...The legislation provides a level of predictability to all 804,000 commercial vehicles in Iowa.”
There have been several cases nationally of juries in trucking lawsuits returning multimillion dollar verdicts over the last decade. In 2021, a Florida jury delivered a $1 billion verdict in a wrongful death case against two trucking companies.
The measure is supported by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and follows the failure to pass a similar bill in the Iowa House last year. Republican leaders paired the measure with a prohibition on vaccine mandates in the same bill, but they were unable to garner enough Republican votes to pass it then.
Business groups also weighed in to support the bill, saying it would provide stability for the trucking industry, as well as manufacturing and other businesses that rely on trucking to move supplies.
The bill is “crucially important to business competitiveness in our state,” said Joe Murphy, president of the Iowa Business Council, which represents Iowa’s largest employers. “So as we look to bring about more predictability, more balance to our system, we’re in support of this bill.”
Opponents included lawyers and justice-based groups, who said high-dollar verdicts are not an issue in Iowa. They also argued that insurance rates — an issue brought up by supporters — were not as high as supporters suggested.
Kellie Paschke, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association for Justice, said the negligence protection measures will shield trucking companies when they hire employees with known drug addictions, allow employees to go over allowable hours or don’t make their drivers maintain vehicles.
“It’s saying to the trucking companies, ‘You can be negligent. We’re going to hide it,’” she said.
Lawmakers also are moving on a bill to cap non-economic damages from medical malpractice lawsuits in the state at $1 million, saying it would provide the same protections for the medical industry.
In a three-member subcommittee Tuesday, Republican Reps. Phil Thompson of Boone and Bill Gustoff of Des Moines both voted to advance the bill, while Democratic Rep. Sami Scheetz of Cedar Rapids opposed it.
“It is frankly unfortunate that every time a commercial motor vehicle is involved in an accident some people see dollar signs,” Thompson said.
Citing research from the Iowa Association for Justice, Scheetz said the bill would make Iowa the first state in the nation to cap damages for trucking companies specifically. He said juries should retain the right to determine damages in a lawsuit.
“For a long, long time in this state, we've been trusting our neighbors, our peers, to sit in a courtroom, listen to testimony and make that decision on behalf of everybody in the state,” Scheetz said. “But for some reason, there’s a sentiment running through this building this week that we should take that right away from Iowans to decide this.”