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Iowa House caps commercial truck liability at $5M
State senators now much consider changes House made to bill
Caleb McCullough, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
Mar. 28, 2023 5:02 pm, Updated: Mar. 29, 2023 10:19 am
DES MOINES — Lawsuits involving truckers and drivers of other commercial vehicles would be capped at $5 million under a bill passed by House lawmakers Tuesday, but differences between the House and Senate versions need to be reconciled before the bill could go to Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Senate File 228 would cap damages related to pain, suffering, death and other non-economic damages at $5 million in lawsuits against commercial vehicle drivers and companies. Economic damages would not be capped, and all punitive damages would go to the plaintiff.
The Senate passed the bill in February, but the House amended it to remove much of the liability protection for employers that was included in the Senate bill; narrow the definition of commercial vehicle; and increase the non-economic damages cap from $2 million to $5 million.
“This was the result of a lot of work and compromise by disparate parties,” said Rep. Bill Gustoff, R-Des Moines. “The trial lawyers and truckers associations — a handful of people involved just trying to work through it and reach a reasonable deal.”
The bill passed the House, 58-42, with six Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against it.
Supporters said the bill is intended to prevent so-called “nuclear” verdicts, which have been seen in other states granting tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to plaintiffs in wrongful death or injury lawsuits.
The supporters also argued it would bring certainty to the insurance market for Iowa trucking companies, bringing down rates and spurring economic activity.
Gustoff said the costs associated with higher insurance rates get passed on to consumers, and certainty in the market would rein in those costs.
“These costs get passed along,” he said. “So it’s hard on trucking companies, it costs farmers, it costs employees, it costs consumers. Because everything we eat, wear, use, if you have it, it came on a truck.”
Opponents said the House’s amended version is an improvement over the Senate version but that the bill would remove Iowans’ right to a trial by jury to fairly judge how much a person should be compensated for life-altering accidents.
Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids, who voted against the bill, said her great aunt died as a teenager in an accident with a semi truck, which had been parked on a roadway at night. The family decided not to sue, but she said she didn’t want to take away that decision from other Iowans.
“I don’t see this bill as being generous to victims,” Jones said. “Iowans aren’t looking to get run down by semi trucks. Lawyers aren’t taking risky, frivolous cases. Iowa juries aren’t awarding more than a person deserves.”
Rep. Sami Scheetz, D-Cedar Rapids, listed the names of Iowans who had died or been severely injured by accidents with commercial trucks and said the Legislature should not limit the losses incurred by those families.
“This bill restricts the juries’ abilities to make victims of negligence whole following a catastrophic loss,” Scheetz said. ”That is fundamentally wrong.”
He also said the bill would make Iowa the only U.S. state to specifically cap damages for commercial vehicles. While some states have limits on non-economic damages for civil lawsuits in general, none specifies caps on commercial vehicles.
Under the bill passed in the Senate, commercial vehicle employers would be shielded from liability stemming from direct negligence in hiring, training, supervising or trusting an employee if the damage was caused by the employee’s negligence.
But the amended House bill only protects employers from liability for direct negligence in hiring, leaving potential for employers to face damages for negligence in training, supervising and trusting an employee.
The House amendment also limits the definition of “commercial motor vehicle." That list includes vehicles weighing more than 26,000 pounds, vehicles transporting hazardous materials, some livestock transportation vehicles and road tractors. It does not include vehicles designed for 16 or more passengers, including buses, or delivery or pickup trucks used for commercial purposes, which were included in the Senate bill.
The bill specifies situations where the cap on damages would be waived. A commercial vehicle driver who is involved in an accident while doing one of the following would not be subject to the cap:
• Operating with an alcohol concentration of 0.04 percent or more.
• Operating under the influence of a drug.
• Refusing to submit to alcohol testing.
• Committing a felony involving the use of the vehicle.
• Using the vehicle to illegally manufacture or distribute a controlled substance.
•Driving without a commercial driver’s license or while the license is suspended or revoked.
• Reckless driving.
• Using an electronic device while driving.
• Speeding more than 15 miles per hour above the speed limit.
The House-amended bill now heads back to the Senate for consideration.
Sen. Mike Bousselot, R-Ankeny, the bill’s floor manager, said, “The House amendment to the commercial vehicle tort bill is a significant change from the bill the Senate passed last week. My fellow senators and I will need some time to evaluate the changes before deciding on a path forward for the bill.”