Opinion: Breese v Burlington

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HUGE win today in Iowa for folks who are injured as a result of the government’s negligence. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled, 7-0, in Breese v Burlington, that when a city creates something, the city has to take reasonable steps to keep that thing safe so people don’t get hurt on it or hurt by it.

You’d think the result would be obvious, like a big “duh”, but no. The opposite is true. Prior to this case, injured plaintiffs in Iowa have been losing cases left and right on the basis of a judge-invented legal construct known as the “public duty doctrine”. The PDD basically says you can’t sue the government unless you’re in a “special relationship” with the government, which hardly anyone is. Courts have already ruled that mere motorists and mere pedestrians are not in a “special relationship” with the government, so, everyone was thinking most people would lose their cases against the government, and almost no one could ever sue, because most cases involve motorists or pedestrians.

FINALLY, a brave lawyer out of Eastern Iowa, Stephen Fieweger, who lost Breese’s case against Burlington on summary judgment in district court, because of the antiquated PDD, appealed the dismissal of the case and asserted a new, but basic, theory of liability, to wit: if the government made it, the government has to keep it reasonably safe. His efforts paid off big time for his client and all clients, and he literally is responsible for saving thousands of pending and future lives and cases. Not only will injured people get the help they need, but our cities might finally start investing in improvements and making our communities safe and healthy for us. That, too, will save lives.

What’s even better about this win is that it was authored by Justice Susan Christensen, Iowa’s female Supreme Court Chief Justice. Since she’s taken over the Court, it is clear she is cracking the whip in Des Moines, and the Court is issuing way more opinions than it has in the past. A lot of unanimous rulings, too, which shows her leadership style must be impactful. Awesome day for civil justice in Iowa.

To read the ruling: https://www.iowacourts.gov/courtcases/9758/embed/SupremeCourtOpinion

Jessica Zupp

Partner, Attorney

Jessica Zupp is an attorney in Denison, Iowa where she owns Zupp and Zupp Law Firm, P.C. with her twin sister, Jennifer. She specializes in Criminal Defense and Divorce and Family Law.

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