Iowa Court Upholds Negligence Verdict Stemming from Tractor Fire

April 25, 2019
Kitt Tovar

On April 17, 2019, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling concerning negligent destruction of a tractor and attachment. The court affirmed the lower courts decisions on all evidentiary issues, but reversed the district court’s decision regarding interest accrual.

Background

In October of 2015, Jerry went out to his brother’s farm where he stored grain. He parked his pickup over dry corn stalks that stood roughly one-and-one-half feet tall. Because of the lack of rain and high temperatures, there was both a burn ban and a red-flag warning[1] in effect. While the brothers worked, the corn stalks under Jerry’s truck started on fire. Eventually, the brothers were able to put out the fire, but Jerry’s brother’s tractor was ruined and the attachment severely damaged.

Lower Court Holding

The brother brought a negligence action against Jerry in 2016. The lower court found Jerry negligent and awarded the brother $198,100 in damages. Jerry appealed claiming inappropriate insurance references, the lack of qualifications for expert witness to testify, the expert testimony should have been excluded, other testimony should not have been permitted, and the court erred in allowing certain jury instructions. The brother cross-appealed claiming interest on the judgment should have started to accrue on the day of the damage instead of the day the lawsuit was filed.

Insurance References

First, Jerry claimed the district court inappropriately made references to his liability insurance. Iowa law prohibits the introduction of evidence regarding whether or not a person possesses insurance coverage. Iowa R. Evidence 5.411. During voir dire, the brother’s counsel allegedly asked about the jury’s experience with insurance claims. However, because the parties chose to not have jury selection reported, there is no record of any inappropriate questions. Additionally, there is no evidence that Jerry’s counsel objected to this type of questioning so there is no preservation of any violation. 

Jerry also claimed that an expert witness made references to Jerry’s liability insurance coverage when the witness noted that he is sometimes retained by insurance carriers. Despite references to Grinnell Mutual Insurance, the court found this was not sufficient to warrant a finding of inappropriate references to Jerry’s liability insurance coverage because no evidence was actually suggested or introduced regarding his coverage.

Witness Qualifications as Experts

Jerry also claimed that the two farmhands who testified as expert witnesses during trial were not qualified to do so because of their lack of formal training. A witness is qualified to testify in order to help the jury understand the evidence or a fact at issue. To be considered a qualified expert witness, an individual must be “an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education.” Ranes v. Adams Labs., Inc., 778 N.W.2d 677, 685-86 (Iowa 2010). Here, the witnesses did not have any specialized training or education. However, each farmhand had years of experience operating farm equipment. One farmhand had received on the job training while the other farmhand had been a firefighter for several years. Because of these facts, the court held the farmhands had sufficient experience to testify as expert witnesses regarding the reasonableness of parking the truck over the combined stalks.

Substance of Expert Testimony

Jerry also claimed that content of the farmhand witnesses’ testimony was inadmissible because it offered legal conclusions when the witnesses testified whether driving a truck into the field was reasonably safe. Jerry claimed this violated Iowa law because expert testimony regarding a legal question is a consideration for the jury. However, part of lawsuit was to determine whether Jerry caused damage his brother’s property. The court found that the witnesses did not offer opinion to whether or not Jerry was negligent, but whether the standard of care was breached.

Cross Appeal  

The brother cross appealed concerning the district court’s order to begin interest accrual starting the date the lawsuit was brought rather than the date of the fire. Iowa law provides that interest accrual begins the date of the lawsuit commencement. Iowa Code § 668.13(1) (2016). However, there is an exception where it appears that the damage was complete on a certain date. In this case, the damage to the brother’s tractor was complete on the day of the fire. Therefore, the court found that the interest should have started to accrue on that day.

 

[1] A red-flag warning is issued by the National Weather Service when weather conditions are ideal for the increased risk of fire and its rapid spread.

CALT does not provide legal advice. Any information provided on this website is not intended to be a substitute for legal services from a competent professional. CALT's work is supported by fee-based seminars and generous private gifts. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the material contained on this website do not necessarily reflect the views of Iowa State University.

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