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Iowa Supreme Court reverses prior decisions on liability for failure to maintain city sidewalks and swimming pools

by Rox Laird | June 26, 2024

The Iowa Supreme Court in two separate decisions handed down June 14 overturned two of its previous rulings on the question of liability for injuries that occur on city sidewalks and at municipal swimming pools. Both rulings were divided, with two justices citing the principle of stare decisis to say the prior rulings should have been left in place.

In the sidewalk case,  Bankers Trust Co. v. City of Des Moines, a woman who was injured in a fall on a sidewalk on Bankers Trust’s property sued the bank and the City of Des Moines. The plaintiff and Bankers Trust settled, but the bank subsequently sued the City seeking a contribution toward the settlement payment, arguing the city, not the property owner, is responsible for sidewalk maintenance.

In its June 14 decision, the Court reversed the Polk County District Court’s ruling granting summary judgment to the city and remanded the case for further proceedings. Questions remain to be resolved on remand as to whether Bankers Trust and the City of Des Moines are individually or jointly liable in the underlying case.

Under Iowa Code 364.12(2), owners of property abutting city-owned sidewalks are responsible for clearing ice and snow and may be liable for damages for failure to do so. But the statute does not impose a general responsibility upon abutting property owners for sidewalk maintenance. A City of Des Moines ordinance, however, imposes a responsibility on property owners to maintain sidewalks abutting their property free of defects or other hazards, and says property owners may be liable for injuries due to their failure to perform such maintenance.

Such municipal ordinances were allowed under the Court’s 2014 decision in Madden v. City of Iowa City, which said the State statute does not “expressly or impliedly” prohibit cities from imposing such liability on property owners.

In its June 14 decision, the Court overruled the Madden holding, concluding Madden was wrongly decided. The Bankers Trust decision was written by Justice Matthew McDermott and joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, and David May. Justice Dana Oxley filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Christopher McDonald.

“In our view, Madden failed to recognize a clear conflict between what the state statute permitted cities to do and what the city attempted to do through its ordinance,” Justice McDermott wrote for the Court. “The statute permits cities to require abutting landowners to repair sidewalks, but only if the city first notifies the landowners by certified mail that a repair is necessary. Iowa Code section 364.12(2)(d). Likewise, the statute permits cities to hold abutting landowners liable for damages, but only for damages that result from failing to use reasonable care in removing snow and ice from the sidewalk.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Oxley criticized the majority’s reasoning in overturning Madden based on its reading of the statute in contrast to the Court’s holding a decade earlier. She faulted the majority for failing to identify any “underlying misunderstanding of substantive law or problems that flow from the Madden majority’s holding.”

Overruling Madden is unwarranted, Oxley said, under the legal principle of stare decisis, in which courts generally adhere to precedent.

“Stare decisis does not allow us to overrule a prior decision the next time it comes up merely because the current members of the court agree with its dissent instead of its majority,” she wrote. “Rather, stare decisis requires us to adhere to an opinion we disagree with — unless there is a reason for overruling it beyond mere disagreement.”

A majority of the Court overturned another precedent in a separate ruling on June 14, this one regarding liability for a city for failing to provide a slip-resistant diving board surface at a municipal swimming pool. This decision, Myers v. City of Cedar Falls, was written by Justice Waterman and joined in full by all justices except Justices Oxley and McDonald, who filed special concurrences.

The Court ruled that Cedar Falls is not liable for injuries to a man who injured his leg when he slipped on a diving board at the city’s pool. The Court based its decision on a provision of the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act, Iowa Code section 670.4(1)(l), that generally exempts municipal swimming pools from liability.

The statute makes an exception to the liability exemption when the injury results from an act or omission that would constitute a criminal offense.

In its 2015 decision in Sanon v. City of Pella, the Court held that Iowa Code section 135.38 criminalizes violations of administrative regulations created under a different statute, Chapter 135I, which regulates pools, spas, and splash pads.

The Court, in its June 14 decision in the Cedar Falls case, said Sanon was wrongly decided.

Whereas violations of the statute that governs swimming pools – Iowa Code 135I – may constitute criminal acts, violations of administrative rules created under that statute do not, contrary to the holding in Sanon, Waterman wrote for the majority.

Sanon was egregiously wrong when it was decided, and it persists in creating problems today,” Justice Waterman wrote.

Justices McDonald and Oxley filed separate opinions concurring in the judgment of the Court affirming the district court’s summary judgment dismissal of the suit against Cedar Falls on different grounds without overruling Sanon. Both justices, citing the principle of stare decisis, said the case should have been decided without reaching the merits of Sanon.

 

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