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Iowa House passes liability protections for trucking industry

semi truck
John Lloyd
Iowa’s trucking industry would have new legal protections under a bill in the Iowa Legislature.

Republicans in the Iowa House of Representatives voted Tuesday to put a $5 million cap on noneconomic damages awarded by a court when a person is severely injured or killed by a commercial vehicle like a semi-truck.

It was amended from an earlier proposal, which would have established a $2 million cap on noneconomic damages.

The billwould also shield trucking companies from liability for direct negligence in hiring a driver who caused a crash. But unlike earlier versions of the bill, employers would still be liable for the negligent training, supervision, or trusting of an employee.

Thetrucking industry has argued liability limits are neededto prevent “nuclear verdicts” of tens of millions of dollars that have been seen in other states.

Rep. Bill Gustoff, R-Des Moines, said the bill is a reasonable compromise between the trucking industry and trial lawyers. He said the bill will help with rising insurance costs faced by trucking companies.

“These costs get passed along,” Gustoff said. “So it’s hard on trucking companies. It costs farmers. It costs employees. It costs consumers, because everything we eat, wear, use—if you have it, it came on a truck.”

The bill passed on a 58-42 vote, with all Democrats and six Republicans voting against it.

Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids, said her great aunt was killed in a car accident involving a semi-truck as a teenager, along with four of her friends. She said her family didn’t sue, but she said she was opposing the bill because all Iowa families should be able to make the decision to seek justice.

“I don’t see this bill as being generous to victims,” Jones said. “Iowans aren’t looking to get run down by semi-trucks. Lawyers aren’t taking risky, frivolous cases. Iowa juries aren’t awarding more than a person deserves.”

She said she’s not in the legislature to add more government regulations or to put a price on life.

Rep. Jon Dunwell, R-Newton, said he was hit by a truck while riding his bike in Florida more than 20 years ago. He said he was in the hospital for a week and had four surgeries.

Dunwell said he was blessed to be hit by commercial vehicle instead of a personal vehicle, because commercial vehicles carry more insurance.

“The reason I speak in favor of this bill is partly because of the context and knowing what commercial vehicles have for insurance and assets,” he said. “But I also speak on behalf of all Iowans. We’re living during a period of time where we have almost 9% inflation for the last couple of years. Families are struggling.”

Dunwell said the bill would help bring down the costs of the personal injury lawsuit system across the country, thereby lowering costs for Iowans.

Rep. Sami Scheetz, D-Cedar Rapids, said the legislature should trust juries to decide how much money Iowans should get for pain and suffering.

“This isn’t about attacking an industry that is crucial to our future,” he said. “But if a trucking company kills or injures people due to their own negligence, this bill shields them from real liability and can lead to further negligence.”

Scheetz also pointed out that Iowa could become the only state to establish specific liability protections for commercial vehicles. Gustoff said nine other states have more general damage caps that include commercial vehicles.

It’s not clear if the Senate—which passed a $2 million cap on noneconomic damages in February—would support the version of the bill passed by the House.

The $5 million cap in the House bill would start increasing based on the Consumer Price Index starting in 2028 and every two years after. The cap would not apply in several cases, including if the truck driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, was engaged in reckless driving or human trafficking, or was using the vehicle while committing a felony.

If punitive damages are awarded, the bill would allow the plaintiff to get 100% of that money.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter