GOP Bill Shields Truck Companies If They Crash Into You

Rep. Sami Scheetz (D-Cedar Rapids, right) speaks in opposition to a bill that would limit liability and jury awards to crash victims hit by a commercial vehicle in Iowa, which would be the first law of its kind in the US.

By Amie Rivers

January 31, 2023

Republicans are trying for a third year in a row to pass legislation that would limit how much the victims of crashes involving trucks from a trucking company could receive in financial compensation. The bill would limit non-economic damages (injuries) to $1 million, which one representative noted would be the only law of its kind in the US.

The bill, House Study Bill 114, was introduced Monday, and the House Judiciary Committee held their first public hearing on it Tuesday before two of the three representatives voted for it to advance.

Most who spoke at the morning meeting were those representing the trucking industry as well as business and insurance lobbyists in favor of the bill. The vast majority of lobbyists were also registered in support of it.

“Cost uncertainty due to nuclear verdicts creates unstable markets, it helps increase prices, and it lessens availability,” said Brittany Lumley with the Iowa Insurance Institute, adding the $1 million cap on non-economic damages would “help provide the certainty of lost costs to an industry that thrives on predictability and stability.”

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“This simply becomes about whether or not Iowa’s gonna be open to do business in,” added Drew Klein with Americans for Prosperity.

The bill’s detractors, attorney groups representing Iowans involved in such crashes, said it would financially punish crash victims.

“Damage caps, or ‘tort reform,’ force a one-size-fits-all, government-mandated dollar value on human life,” said Andrew Mertens, deputy director for the Iowa Association of Justice, a member group of trial attorneys. “It’s immoral and unconstitutional.”

“It truly has some significant problems in the way it’s drafted,” added Jim Carney with the Iowa State Bar Association.

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The bill would disallow courts from finding employers of truck drivers liable for “negligence in hiring, training, supervising or trusting” their employees.

That could have the effect of allowing “companies to take shortcuts on training or have drivers take risks, like spending too many hours on the road or driving through dangerous weather conditions,” according to a Bleeding Heartland article from last year’s bill.

It could also mean a commercial vehicle driver may be the only one who has to pay, not their employer.

If a jury can find a trucking company or driver guilty in a crash even within that narrow scope, the bill also limits “non-economic” damages (damages that can’t be quantified) to $1 million, “regardless of the number of claims … or defendants.”

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Dan McKay with the Iowa State Bar Association said he hadn’t found any so-called “nuclear verdicts,” or jury awards that surpass $10 million, in Iowa. He also said Iowa’s insurance rates were “very competitive” to other states when it came to commercial vehicle liability.

“The bill seems to want to look at the fairness of this. And we have to talk about the fairness to those people (who) are injured or damaged by the negative acts of this carrier,” McKay said.

Rep. Sami Scheetz (D-Cedar Rapids), who voted against advancing the bill, noted that no other US state had a specific cap for the trucking industry. (Eleven states cap non-economic damages in general lawsuits.)

“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 what to award crash victims, Scheetz said. “But for some reason, there’s a sentiment running through the building this week that we should take that right away from Iowans.”

 

by Amie Rivers
1/31/23

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  • Amie Rivers

    Amie Rivers is Starting Line's community editor, labor reporter and newsletter snarker-in-chief. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; now, she very much enjoys making TikToks and memes. Send all story tips and pet photos to [email protected] and sign up for our newsletter here.

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