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Is an Iowa County Liable for Accidents Caused by Roadside Hazards?


If a private landowner places a hazard on their property that injured a third party, the victim typically may seek damages under the principles of premises liability. But what about hazards on land owned by the state or a municipality? In Iowa, the courts have long recognized a “public-duty doctrine,” which basically says that when the government owes some duty to the public as a whole, an individual member cannot prevail in a personal injury claim based on a breach of that duty. But the plaintiff may still have a claim if he or she can prove they had a “special relationship” with the government.

Supreme Court Holds Public-Duty Doctrine Covers Concrete Embankment

On June 8, 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court cited the public-duty doctrine in rejecting a personal injury lawsuit arising from an accident where a concrete barrier on county-owned land played a critical role. In the early morning hours of March 3, 2013, the plaintiff and her then-spouse were traveling in their pickup truck down a road in Humboldt County.

The spouse was driving. At some point he fell asleep at the wheel. The truck drifted across the road and “veered into a roadside ditch,” according to court records. The vehicle then traversed the ditch for about 200 yards before striking a “concrete embankment.”

The accident paralyzed the plaintiff. She later filed a personal injury lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of Humboldt County and a couple who owned part of the property containing the concrete embankment. One of the co-owners and his father initially constructed the embankment in the 1970s to allow people and vehicles to safely cross the ditch. While the embankment itself is located entirely on the private owners’ land, the majority of it is subject to a right-of-way easement held by the County.

A trial court granted the County’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of the public-duty doctrine. A divided Iowa Supreme Court affirmed. The majority rejected the plaintiff’s multiple arguments against application of the doctrine to the facts of this case. As the Court explained, “Any duty to remove obstructions from the right-of-way corridor adjacent to the highway would be a duty owed to all users of this public road,” not just the plaintiff.

The Court further declined the plaintiff’s invitation to create an “exception” to the public-duty doctrine based on the “grave danger” posed by hazards that affect “highway safety.” For one thing, the Court doubted whether this particular embankment constituted a safety hazard, given that Humboldt County received no prior complaints in the preceding 40 years. But in any event, the Court said the public-duty doctrine clearly extends to matters regarding highway safety, regardless of the degree of danger alleged.

Get Legal Advice Following an Iowa Car Accident

Determining legal liability for a car accident is often a complex task. This is why you should always speak with a qualified Iowa personal injury lawyer following any kind of accident. Call the Noyes Law Office, P.C. today if you need immediate legal advice or assistance.


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