Tractor Driver Not Responsible for Motorcycle Collision
On November 8, 2019, the Iowa Supreme Court denied the motion to include a tractor driver in a second trial involving a motorcycle collision. The Court found that while there was an error in the verdict form, it did not influence the jury’s decision to exonerate the tractor driver of fault in the accident.
In 2015, a woman was a passenger on a motorcycle driven by her fiancé on a clear summer day. The pair rode along a two-lane county road where the speed limit was fifty-five miles per hour. The motorcycle approached a tractor towing a hay rake and traveling at ten to fifteen miles per hour in the same lane. The tractor’s hazard lights were flashing on the roof of the cab. The tractor driver began to slow down and applied the left turn signal in order to enter a field. As the tractor driver began to turn, the fiancé attempted to pass the tractor. The motorcycle struck the tractor leaving the passenger severely injured.
The passenger filed a lawsuit against the tractor driver and his wife who also owned the tractor. The passenger claimed the tractor driver negligently operated the tractor causing the collision. The tractor driver filed a third-party contribution claim against the fiancé claiming his negligent operation of the motorcycle caused the passenger’s injuries. Possibly for insurance purposes, the passenger amended her complaint to also include her own negligence claim against the fiancé.
After a six-day jury trial, the trial court submitted a verdict form to the jury. The verdict form included six questions regarding the liabilities of both defendants and whether the defendants were responsible for any damages sustained by the plaintiff. The first question was:
QUESTION NO. 1: Was [the tractor driver] at fault?
Answer “yes” or “no.”
[If your answer is no, do not answer any further questions and sign the verdict form.
If your answer is yes, answer Question No. 2.]
The jury answered “no,” finding the tractor driver was not at fault. Following the instructions, the jury did not answer any further questions regarding whether the fiancé was at fault for the accident and did not award any damages. None of the lawyers noticed this mistake on the verdict form until after the court discharged the jury. The court entered an order finding the tractor driver was not negligent. Several days later, the passenger moved for a mistrial claiming that because the jury did not address the fiancé’s liability, this was equivalent to a hung jury and required a mistrial. Alternatively, the plaintiff sought a new trial against both defendants on liability and damages. This case came before the Supreme Court to decide whether a complete retrial was required for both the tractor driver and the fiancé or a new trial for just the claim against the fiancé.
Supreme Court Analysis
The passenger argued that both parties must be on the verdict form to compare the fault of each party. However, the jury already exonerated the tractor driver of any fault in the collision. Therefore, there was no longer any need to compare the fault of the defendants.
In general, all issues must be retried when a new trial is granted. However, the scope may be limited in some cases. The Supreme Court has “repeatedly left liability findings intact and limited retrials to issues of damages […].” In this case, there was no evidence the erroneous verdict form influenced the jury’s finding the tractor driver was not at fault.
Additionally, there are times when it is necessary for the court to separate negligence claims when granting a new trial. The passenger alleged separate claims of negligence against each defendant. The jury had already exonerated the tractor driver and in this way separated the two negligence claims. The error on the verdict form only affected the claim against the fiancé. The actions of the tractor driver and the fiancé were not so intertwined as to require both defendants to appear in the new trial. Therefore, the Supreme Court granted a new trial against solely the fiancé.
This case is a good reminder for lawyers and trial courts to double check verdict forms before discharging the jury. While this tractor driver practiced safe driving, it is also a good reminder of Iowa laws regulating slow moving vehicles found in Iowa Code chapter 321. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, the minimum requirements are:
- Steady white headlamp: All animal-drawn vehicles and self-propelled implements of husbandry must be equipped with at least one lighted lamp or lantern exhibiting a white light visible from a distance of 500 feet in front of the vehicle.
- Steady red tail lamp: All self-propelled implements of husbandry must be equipped with a lamp or lantern exhibiting a red light visible from a distance of 500 feet behind the vehicle.
- Flashing amber light: A farm tractor, farm tractor with towed equipment or self-propelled implement of husbandry operated on a primary or secondary road at a speed of 35 mph or less must be equipped with and display an amber flashing light visible from the rear. If the amber flashing light is obstructed by the towed equipment, the towed equipment shall also be equipped with and display an amber flashing light.
- Lighted white, red or amber lamps or lanterns are required at all times from sunset to sunrise, and at other times when conditions such as fog, snow, sleet or rain provide insufficient lighting to render clearly discernible persons and vehicles on the highway at a distance of 500 feet ahead.
- SMV emblem: When operated on a highway at a speed of 35 mph or less, every farm tractor, tractor with towed equipment, self-propelled implement of husbandry, horse-drawn vehicle or any other vehicle principally designed for use off the highway shall be equipped with a SMV emblem visible from the rear of the slow-moving vehicle.
While not required, the DOT lists additional ways to make farm vehicles and equipment more visible to motorists including:
- Use two red tail lamps, rather than the one that is required.
- Use two white head lamps, rather than the one that is required.
- Use retroreflective tape or conspicuity tape that is visible at night from a distance of 1,200 feet when directly exposed to the high beam of headlamps.
- Use amber reflectors to mark the front of towed implements that protrude beyond the width of the towing farm tractor.
- Make sure the SMV sign is clean and not faded and that all lights are free of dust and dirt.
- If a tractor or self-propelled implement is wider than 8.5 feet, the Iowa DOT recommends displaying steady amber warning lights at the widest part of the vehicle.
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