Dustin Mueller - MSM&C

Attorney at Mueller, Schmidt, Mulholland & Cooling

Practice Areas: Motor Vehicle Accidents, Workers’ Compensation, Property Insurance Claims

In April 2023, an Iowa nursing home chain was sued for the wrongful death of a resident – this is at least the fifth wrongful-death case that Care Initiatives of West Des Moines has faced in the past two years.

According to the lawsuit, 87 year-old Alice Ward was admitted to Wapello Specialty Care on June 25, 2021, and had a history of confusion and elopement and was deemed to be a very high risk for falls. On Feb. 21, 2022, she allegedly wandered out of the building and fell about 30 feet from the exit door, resulting in a neck fracture and a laceration to her forehead that required 14 stitches. She died five days later as a result of the fall, the lawsuit alleges. 

The lawsuit alleges Care Initiatives failed to ensure proper medical attention was provided; failed to provide appropriate care and staffing; failed to assure urgent access to hospital; failed to provide appropriate transfers; and failed to abide by all relevant state and federal regulations.

A wrongful death claim arises because of another person’s negligent or intentional act. In Iowa, this could stem from various scenarios, such as a car accident caused by a careless driver or a medical error by a healthcare provider. Said another way, the deceased would have been eligible to file a personal injury lawsuit if they had lived, a claim for wrongful death is usually appropriate. This legal process allows the deceased’s estate or surviving family members to seek compensation for their losses, such as funeral expenses, loss of income, and emotional suffering. 

Iowa’s wrongful death statutes serve as legal guidelines when someone’s life is cut short due to another party’s negligent actions. According to Iowa law, a wrongful death claim can be brought forth by a representative of the deceased’s estate. The law allows this representative to pursue compensation for various damages. These damages may include financial losses like burial costs or lost wages, as well as emotional distress. However, these cases must be filed within a specified time frame, known as the statute of limitations. 

Who Can File a Wrongful Death Claim in Iowa?

In Iowa, a wrongful death claim can’t be initiated by just anyone. The law specifically designates who has the right to file. Typically, it is the representative of the deceased person’s estate who can take action. This representative is often named in the deceased’s will. If no will is present, or if the representative can’t or won’t act, the court may appoint someone to serve in this role. This person is usually a close family member like a spouse, adult child, or parent. 

What Types of Damages Can Be Recovered in a Wrongful Death Claim?

A wrongful death claim in Iowa allows for recovery of several types of damages. Economic damages are the financial losses related to the death, such as medical and funeral expenses, the deceased’s lost earnings, and the loss of benefits like pension or insurance. Non-economic damages consider the more intangible impacts, such as the loss of companionship, guidance, and emotional support the deceased provided. In certain cases, punitive damages can also be sought to punish the responsible party if their actions were especially harmful or reckless. 

Proving Negligence in Iowa Wrongful Death Cases:

In an Iowa wrongful death case, proving negligence is a key factor. Negligence involves showing the defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased, breached duty, and this breach directly caused the death and resulting damages. For instance, in a car accident case, the duty of care might be the responsibility all drivers have to obey traffic laws. If a driver breaches duty by running a red light, and causes a fatal accident, this could be considered negligence. Importantly, it must be shown the death would not have occurred if not for the defendant’s breach of duty. This concept is central to Iowa’s wrongful death cases.

Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Claims in Iowa

Iowa law sets a specific time frame during which a wrongful death claim must be filed, known as the statute of limitations. In general, the representative of the deceased’s estate has two years from the date of death to file a lawsuit. If this deadline passes, the court may refuse to hear the case, resulting in loss of the right to seek compensation. However, certain exceptions can extend or shorten this period. For instance, if the death was not immediately apparent, the clock might start ticking from the date of discovery. 

Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations

While Iowa typically maintains a two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims, there are exceptions that can alter this time frame. For example, the ‘discovery rule’ might come into play if the cause of death was not immediately apparent. In such cases, the clock starts ticking from the date the cause of death is discovered, or reasonably should have been discovered. In cases involving minors, the statute of limitations may be extended until they reach the age of majority. H

The Role of Negligence in Wrongful Death Claims

Negligence plays a significant role in wrongful death claims in Iowa. To win a wrongful death case, it must be shown the defendant was negligent. Negligence involves four elements: duty, breach, causation, and damages. The plaintiff must prove the defendant had a duty of care toward the deceased, breached this duty, and this breach directly resulted in death and damages. For example, in a car accident case, all drivers have a duty to obey traffic laws. If a driver breaks this duty by speeding and causes a fatal accident, they could be held negligent. 

The Impact of Contributory Negligence in Iowa Wrongful Death Cases

Wrongful Death Law

In Iowa, contributory negligence can influence the outcome of a wrongful death case. This legal concept applies when the deceased individual is found to have partially contributed to their own death. If it’s determined the deceased was, for example, 30% at fault, any damages awarded would be reduced by the same percentage. This means if the total damages are $100,000, the award would be reduced to $70,000. However, if the deceased was found to be 50% or more at fault, the representative may not recover any damages. Understanding how contributory negligence operates is critical in comprehending the complexities of wrongful death cases in Iowa.

Understanding the nuances of contributory negligence in Iowa is particularly important in cases where the circumstances of the death are complex. For instance, if the wrongful death occurred as a result of a truck accident, the degree to which the deceased may have been responsible can significantly affect the case’s outcome. Similarly, deaths caused by defective medical devices or through product liability issues introduce additional layers of complexity. The specific details of how contributory negligence affects Iowa wrongful death cases can provide crucial insights for those seeking justice under such tragic circumstances.

If you are dealing with a wrongful death claim, contact or call us at 515-444-4000 as soon as possible for a free consultation.

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