Municipal water utility not protected from strict liability for main breaks, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | May 23, 2023

A municipal water utility is not shielded by the Iowa Tort Claims Act from strict liability for damage to a Council Bluffs couples’ home caused by water main breaks, the Iowa Supreme Court held in a decision handed down May 19.

Jim and Angela Sutton sued the Council Bluffs Water Works following breaks in a water main, which they argue caused their home to settle and damage the foundation, floors, and interior walls. In addition to a negligence claim cited in their action, the Suttons argued the utility was liable for damages under the theory of strict liability, which the Court defined as “liability that doesn’t depend on negligence or intent to do harm.”

The Water Works brought an interlocutory appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court after the District Court denied the utility’s motion to dismiss based on the utility’s argument that the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act does not allow a claim for strict liability against a municipality for damage caused by an underground water main break.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the Water Works’ argument. The decision was written by Justice Matthew McDermott and joined by all members of the Court except Chief Justice Susan Christensen, who did not participate in the case.

The Court cited its 1964 decision in Lubin v. City of Iowa City, which held that a municipality could be held liable under a theory of strict liability for damage resulting from an underground water main break.

The Council Bluffs Water Works argued that the Lubin decision was implicitly overruled by the Iowa Tort Claims Act, Iowa Code Chapter 670, enacted three years later, which the utility argues does not allow for strict liability claims as the one in this case. The Court, however, said, “we find nothing in our caselaw, and nothing in chapter 670, that upends our holding in Lubin.”

The Municipal Tort Claims Act makes municipalities liable for “torts,” which the Act defines as “every civil wrong which results in wrongful death or injury to person or injury to property or injury to personal or property rights and includes but is not restricted to actions based upon negligence; error or omission; nuisance; breach of duty, whether statutory or other duty or denial or impairment of any right under any constitutional provision, statute or rule of law.”

Because strict liability is not listed in the Municipal Tort Claims Act’s definition of tort, the Water Works argued that such claims are not allowed. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the list of causes of action in the text of the statute is introduced with the words “includes but is not restricted to” and thus is not an exclusive list.

“A list that by its terms is not exclusive cannot be an expression of all the types of claims granted,” McDermott wrote. “The absence of strict liability from the list thus doesn’t compel the interpretation that Water Works advances.”

Moreover, the statute’s introductory language defining tort as “every civil wrong which results in wrongful death or injury” cuts against the Water Works’ argument, the Court said.

Finally, the Court disagreed with the Water Works’ argument that the theory of strict liability applied in this case conflicts with the statute’s exemptions from liability for the design and construction of public infrastructure that was “state of the art” when built, or which has not been upgraded to meet subsequent standards.

The statute’s state-of-the-art defense applies to two types of claims: those related to design and construction of public improvements, and those related to a failure to upgrade existing infrastructure. Neither applies in this case, the Court said, because the Suttons allege no negligence in water main construction or failure by the Water Works to upgrade the water distribution system to a new design standard that would trigger the state-of-the-art defense.





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