AABP Award 728x90

Iowa’s legal liability system among fairest in country


In a country where you can sue a restaurant chain for allowing you to eat too much of its high-fat food, Iowa ranks pretty well when it comes to the fairness of its legal liability system.

According to a recent survey of large corporations by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, Iowa ranks third in the nation for fairness of its state court liability system.

Overall, 65 percent of the survey respondents rated the America’s state court liability system as either fair or poor, so Iowa’s high ranking doesn’t necessarily mean its system is problem-free.

Conducted by Harris Interactive Inc., the study surveyed 928 senior corporate attorneys throughout the country. The respondents were screened for their familiarity with particular states, and those who were very familiar or somewhat familiar with the litigation environment in a state were asked to evaluate that state.

In Iowa’s case, 61 of those 239 attorneys rated Iowa’a system.    Iowa was ranked among the top three states in nine out of the 10 categories evaluated in the study, with a 2nd or 3rd place ranking in each of the following:

* Overall treatment of tort and contract litigation

* Treatment of class actions

* Punitive damages

* Timeliness of summary judgment or dismissal

* Discovery

* Judges’ impartiality

* Juries’ predictability

* Juries’ fairness

The only category in which Iowa did not rank in the top three was scientific and technical evidence; it ranked 11th in that category.

From the perspective of one local attorney, that last category reflects some weaknesses in Iowa’s standards for admissibility of evidence.      “So far, Iowa does not impose the same restrictions as federal courts,” said Richard Sapp, a senior trial attorney with Nyemaster Goode Voigts West Hansell & O’Brien PC in Des Moines. “The standards of admissibility of evidence (in federal courts) are quite a bit more stringent than by the state. That usually presents a bigger problem for defendants.”

Sapp specializes almost exclusively in defending Fortune 400 companies, as well as smaller companies in product liability cases.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the standard for filing a punitive damage claim, Sapp said.

The Iowa Legislature recently approved a bill that included a provision to raise the standard for punitive damages, but the measure was line-item vetoed by the governor.  

The current standard of proof – that the plaintiff must show “willful and wanton disregard” for his well-being on the part of the defendant, is “fairly ambiguous,” Sapp said. “Other states have added requirement for some kind of malice having to be proven.

It makes it unpredictable when it’s that vague for clients and for businesses.”

oakridge web 090123 300x250