The Jury’s Role in Determining Comparative Fault in Iowa Personal Injury Cases

by Dirk J. Hamel

The jury is given a great deal of discretion under Iowa law in determining how to divide the fault between all of the parties in a car accident case or other personal injury claim. See here for my blog post of August 8, 2013 for an explanation of the importance of comparative fault and how it effects how much an injured party can recover.

A jury is generally instructed by the Court to assess comparative fault in language along the following lines:

“Damages may be the fault of more than one person. In comparing fault, you should consider all of the surrounding circumstances as shown by the evidence, together with the conduct of the parties and the extent of the causal relation between their conduct and the damage claimed. You should then determine what percentage, if any, each party’s fault contributed to the damages.” This jury instruction is based on Iowa Code Section 668.3(3) which can be seen here.

Automobile collisions are the most common type of case in which comparative fault comes into play. The basis for assigning fault out of a car accident comes from the drivers violating the rules for safe driving.

Over the years the Iowa Courts have established certain duties that every driver must follow. Every driver in Iowa has a duty to act as a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances, maintain a proper look out, and keep their vehicle under control. In a personal injury trial the jury would be instructed that a violation of any of these Court created duties is a basis for assigning fault to an offending driver.

In Iowa Code Chapter 321 the legislature has also mandated a wide variety of driving requirements. The Iowa Civil Jury Instructions currently have exactly 100 different jury instructions based on violations of Iowa Code Chapter 321 that can create the basis for assigning fault to a driver. Most of these jury instructions can fall under categories of:

  1. Driving in excess of the speed limit.
  2. Driving at a speed that will not allow the driver to stop within the assured clear distance ahead.
  3. Failing to drive below the speed limit when special conditions require lower speed such as snow, fog or ice.
  4. Driving on the wrong side of the road.
  5. Unsafe passing.
  6. Failing to obey traffic control signals, stop signs or yield signs.
  7. Failing to yield when making a left hand turn.
  8. Failing to yield to a pedestrian.
  9. Driving a motor vehicle without all of the proper equipment.
  10. Driving a motor vehicle in a reckless manner.
  11. Operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.

In a motor vehicle accident case the jury would be instructed that a violation of any of these statutory driving requirements is a basis for assigning fault to an offending driver.

A fairly common collision is when one driver traveling straight is going too fast, and a second driver traveling in the opposite direction attempts to make a left hand turn in front of the speeding driver. The speeding driver can have fault assigned to them based on their excess speed. The driver making the left hand turn can have fault assigned to them based on the failure to yield while making a turn.

As I mentioned above, the jury has a great deal of discretion in how to apportion that fault, and people can disagree on how that fault should be divided. Part of the lawyer’s job is to present the best evidence and arguments on behalf of their client to persuade the jury to return a favorable fault apportionment.