Iowa Supreme Court Examines Claims against Municipality

Posted on: June 5th, 2023

Jim and Angela Sutton’s house sits near an intersection in Council Bluffs where an underground water main broke in November 2020, sending water to the Sutton’s property. The flowing water eventually became standing water and the Suttons alleged the water caused their house to settle, resulting in damage to its foundation, interior walls, garage floors, and doors. The Suttons filed suit against Council Bluffs Water Works under theories of strict liability and negligence. The Suttons alleged that Water Works was strictly liable for the damage to their house based on the inherent danger associated with an underground water main. Water Works moved to dismiss the strict liability claim, arguing it was impermissible under the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act, Iowa Code ch. 670 (2021). The district court denied the motion. The Supreme Court granted the application for interlocutory appeal, to decide whether the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act allows a claim for strict liability against a municipality for damage caused by an underground water main break.

The Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act allows people to assert claims against municipalities that otherwise would have been barred by governmental immunity. Water Works argued that strict liability claims were not listed as a type of claim permitted by the Act. The Court applied the plain language of the statute to determine that strict liability claims are “torts” for which parties can pursue claims under the Act. The Court also noted that the definition of “tort” in the Act included “every civil wrong which results in death or injury” and that definition embraced strict liability claims. The Court ultimately determined that Water Works failed to show that the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act barred a claim for damages based on a theory of strict liability and affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss.

Sutton v. Council Bluffs Water Works, No. 22-0513 (Iowa May 19, 2023).

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