Damages in Iowa Personal Injury Cases

by Dirk J. Hamel

When people who have been in car accidents or injured in other ways come to see me they are understandably interested in finding out what types of damages or money they are entitled to receive as a result of their injuries. Today I am going to give an overview of the categories of damages that an injured person can recover under Iowa law.

PROPERTY DAMAGE. Many of the cases that I deal with involve motor vehicle accidents. If your car is damaged in an accident you are entitled to receive the reasonable cost to repair your vehicle as long as the cost of repair does not exceed the reasonable market value of your vehicle.

If the cost of repairing your vehicle would be more than the reasonable value of your vehicle, then you are only entitled to receive the reasonable market value of your automobile.

Additionally, while your vehicle is being repaired, or if you have to get a new vehicle, you are also entitled to the value of the loss of use of your vehicle for the time reasonably required to repair it or to obtain a replacement.

In other words, if your vehicle is damaged or destroyed, the defendants owe you the value of a rental car during the time required to get your car repaired or replaced.

PAST MEDICAL EXPENSES. If you are injured in some sort of accident and require medical care, the defendants owe you the reasonable cost of hospital charges, doctor charges, prescriptions, and other medical services that you ended up needing.

Under Iowa law the defendants are only required to pay the reasonable cost of the medical expenses. In assessing what is the reasonable cost the jury is entitled to consider what was actually charged and what was actually paid. Frequently health insurance companies have arrangements with the medical care providers so that the health insurance company does not have to pay 100% of the billing price. Pexa v. Auto Owners Insurance Co., 686 N.W.2d 150 (Iowa 2004) is the Iowa Supreme Court case that introduced the idea that a jury can consider what was actually paid towards the medical bill as part of determining how much should be awarded for the past medical expenses.

An exception to the Pexa rule is that evidence of payment of medical expenses by State or Federal programs are not admissible at trial. Therefore, to the extent that you have medical bills that were paid for by Medicare or Medicaid that source of payment is inadmissible at trial.

FUTURE MEDICAL EXPENSES. You are also entitled to be awarded the present value of reasonable and necessary future medical expenses. Expert medical testimony is necessary to prove the amount of future medical expenses.

PAST LOST WAGES. Under Iowa law you are also entitled to be compensated for your lost wages from the date of injury to trial.

LOSS OF FUTURE EARNING CAPACITY. You are also entitled to be compensated for the present value of your loss of future earning capacity that was caused by your injury. Loss of future earning capacity is another area where expert testimony is frequently necessary in order to establish the amount of lost future income, and the method of reducing the total future lost wages into a lump sum representing the present value of the lost wages.

LOSS OF FUNCTION OF THE MIND AND BODY. Under Iowa law the different aspects of the physical and psychological damages from an injury are broken down into what is called “loss of function of the mind and body” and “physical and mental pain and suffering.”

In assessing the loss of function of full mind and body a jury is instructed to consider the inability of the injured part of the claimant’s mind or body to function in a normal manner. The jury is given a great deal of discretion to determine the value of this loss. The jury is also instructed to award loss of full mind and body separately for the past and for the future. The jury is instructed that the loss of full mind and body for the future needs to be reduced to present value.

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL PAIN AND SUFFERING. In Iowa personal injury cases the jury is instructed that physical pain and suffering may include, but is not limited to, bodily suffering or discomfort.

The jury is instructed that mental pain and suffering may include, but is not limited to, mental anguish or loss of enjoyment of life.

Iowa juries are given broad discretion in determining what amount they should award for physical and mental pain and suffering. In awarding damages for the future of physical and mental pain and suffering the jury is required to reduce the amount awarded to the present value of the total award.

ROLE OF THE LAWYER. How does a lawyer figure out what a case is worth? As you can see from the discussion above, it is fairly straightforward to figure out the amount that should be awarded for property damage, past lost wages, and past medical expenses.

Figuring out the future medical expenses and future loss of earning capacity can vary from being fairly simply to very complex. In serious injury cases expert witnesses are generally needed.

Figuring out the amount that should be awarded for loss of function of the mind and body and physical and mental pain and suffering comes down to estimating what a jury will likely award in the case. Figuring out what a jury will likely do requires a detailed analysis of all the facts about the underlying accident, all the details of the lives of the injured party and the defendant or defendants, and experience and knowledge about how juries in the area tend to value different kinds of cases.

DAMAGES IN WRONGFUL DEATH CASES. The Iowa law on what damages and money should be paid in a case involving a death has quite a few differences from the law on personal injury damages. Down the road I will post a separate article on wrongful death damages.