Comparative Fault in Iowa Car Accident Cases

by Dirk J. Hamel

In many Iowa personal injury cases one party is clearly completely at fault for the accident, and in such situations the party at fault is required to pay all of the damages of the injured parties. However, in many cases both sides can have some responsibility for the resulting damages. For example, in a car accident case one party may have been traveling too fast, and the other party may have failed to yield the right of way.

Iowa has a comparative fault system to deal with these situations. In the Iowa system the jury is given written instructions on how to assess responsibility for an accident, and the jury is required to divide 100% of the available fault among each party who may have contributed to the final damages.

This apportionment of fault has many significant consequences. First, the percentage of fault assigned to a defendant determines how much of the total damages the defendant is required to pay. Second, the percentage of fault assigned to the plaintiff lowers the percentage of damages that the plaintiff can recover, and at a certain point bars the plaintiff from collecting any damages.

By way of example a jury might decide that the plaintiff is entitled to receive $100,000 of damages. The jury also finds that the defendant is 90% at fault for the collision, and the plaintiff is 10% at fault for the collision. This division of fault means that the injured party can only collect 90% of their damages, or in this example, $90,000.

Similarly, if the injured party is 20% at fault, then they can only collect 80% of their damages, or $80,000. If the plaintiff is 30% at fault, then they can only collect 70% of their damages, or $70,000.

This proportional recovery system continues to the point where the plaintiff is 50% at fault. If the plaintiff is found to be 50% at fault, then they can still collect 50% of their damages or $50,000.

However, if the plaintiff is found to be 51% or more at fault, then they are not entitled to collect any of their damages.

In some automobile crash cases, and in other types of personal injury cases, you can end up having two or more defendants. As long as the plaintiff’s comparative fault is 50% or less, the plaintiff can still collect the percentage of damages assessed against all of the other defendants.

In Iowa auto accident cases or other personal injury cases in which there is multiple defendants the concept of “joint and several liability” becomes very important. If one of the defendants qualifies as being jointly and severally liable, this means that they can be required to pay all of the damages which the plaintiff is entitled to receive, even if it goes beyond the percentage of fault assigned to the defendant who is jointly and severally liable. Under Iowa law if a defendant is found to be 50% or more at fault, then they are treated as being jointly and severally liable, and become liable for the total percentage of fault that was not assigned to the plaintiff. The concept of joint and several liability becomes very important in cases in which one defendant has the ability to pay for all the damages, and one defendant does not. In such situations, the injured party will want to work to have most of the fault assigned to the defendant that has the ability to pay the jury verdict.

Under Iowa law there are limits to the joint and several liability based on the type of damages. A defendant who is jointly and severally liable is responsible for all economic damages such as loss of earnings. However, a defendant who is jointly and severally liable is only responsible for paying their percentage of fault for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.

In my next post I will talk about the instructions a jury receives on how to assess comparative fault, and some of the related legal standards.