Supreme Court Finds Violation of Local Ordinance Constitutes Negligence Per Se

Posted on: July 8th, 2016

The Supreme Court of Iowa ordered a new trial in a wrongful-death action arising from a fatal fall from an apartment balcony. The case presented several issues on the applicability of the negligence per se doctrine to an alleged municipal housing code violation.

In 2011, Shannon Potts was drinking with friends in a Des Moines apartment building when she fell to her death from a second-floor balcony. Her parents, Kathryn Winger and Timothy Potts, sued the apartment complex, CM Holdings, LLC, for negligence and a Polk County jury awarded a $1.75 million judgment, reduced to $1,137,500 for comparative fault. The Plaintiffs alleged the balcony railing, which measured 32 inches in height, violated the local housing code. The balcony railing complied with the local housing code when the apartment complex was constructed in 1968, but current housing codes require a 42 inch railing. Before the fatal accident, a local housing inspector cited the landlord for its code violation. The landlord did not contest the finding, but asked for an extension of time to install higher railings. The housing authority granted a three-month extension.  Potts fell over the original railing three days later.

At trial, Plaintiffs argued the violation of the 42-inch guardrail requirement constituted negligence per se (negligence established by law, rather than by jury). CM Holdings argued negligence per se does not apply to a local ordinance. Additionally, CM Holdings argued the 32-inch guardrail was legal under the building code’s grandfather clause, which applied code changes only to structures built after or substantially altered after a code revision. The district court ruled the landlord was bound by the housing authority’s determination that 42-inch railings were required, and instructed the jury that the landlord’s violation of the housing code constituted negligence per se. The court limited the jury to deciding causation, comparative fault, and damages. The jury returned a verdict finding CM Holding’s negligence caused the plaintiffs’ damages.

In post-trial rulings, the district court found the doctrine of negligence per se did not apply to a local housing code and ordered a new trial. Both sides appealed. The court of appeals affirmed with three separate opinions. The Supreme Court granted the parties’ applications for further review.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Thomas Waterman, held the doctrine of negligence per se applies to the violation of a municipal housing code and is not limited to statewide laws. In so holding, the Court overruled its prior decision in Griglione v. Martin, 525 N.W.2d 810 (Iowa 1994), which held negligence per se applied only in cases involving statewide statute or rule, rather than one enacted by local authorities. The Court did not rule on whether the railing was covered by the grandfather clause. The Court remanded the case to Polk County District Court for a new trial to resolve that question.

Winger, et al. v. CM Holdings, L.L.C., No. 14-0199 (Iowa June 27, 2016).

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