Iowa Medical Malpractice Laws

There is a certain level of trust that a patient places within their healthcare provider that is hard to duplicate. Patients allow their healthcare providers to see their medical history, learn about their current and ongoing physical ailments and perform procedures that often require them to put their life in the hands of their physician. When this level of trust is severed due to medical malpractice, it can be difficult to know what steps need to be taken in order to seek a legal remedy that is just.

Medical malpractice claims are nuanced in that there are a variety of facts that must be analyzed to make certain that your claim has merit and is permitted to be filed with a court. If you are seeking damages for a claim of medical malpractice, time is of the essence since the law in your state has created a finite period of time in which you are permitted to bring a claim.

In addition, the law in Iowa has put into place a myriad of steps that need to be taken before you can even get your case started. To help, this page was created to provide a brief overview of what you may expect if you are pursuing a medical malpractice claim in Iowa; however, the best course of action to take if you are considering doing so is to consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney licensed in Iowa.

Suing for Medical Malpractice in Iowa

If you were injured due to the negligence of a health care provider, you may be in a position to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. The law in Iowa places a set time period for which a medical malpractice claim may be filed. If named as a defendant in a medical malpractice case, the law in Iowa allows the defense of modified comparative negligence to be used which allows a damage award to be reduced in proportion to the percentage of fault assigned by a court.

When it comes to medical malpractice claims, many cases settle out of court prior to the case advancing to the trial stage of litigation. However, if the case does advance to trial and you are successful in proving your case and receive an award of damages as a result, unlike many other states, the law in Iowa does not cap those damages.

How long do I have to file a medical malpractice case in Iowa?

In order to ensure that medical malpractice claims are brought within a reasonable amount of time, the law in Iowa requires that you file your claim of medical malpractice within two years from the act or omission that gave rise to your injury. [1] However, if your injury could not have been reasonably discovered within the two-year period, the statute of limitations will not begin to run until discovery. [2] It is worth noting that a medical malpractice claim may not be brought later than six years after the date on which the medical error was committed unless a foreign object was left unintentionally in your body and caused your injury. If the foreign object was the origin of your injury, the two-year statute of limitations is completely tolled until discovery, regardless of the six-year window. The idea behind the time extension related to foreign objects left in the body is that it would be unfair to hold you responsible for discovering an item that you really have no way of identifying.

If you file your medical malpractice lawsuit after the applicable statute of limitations have expired, it is likely that your case will be dismissed and you will be left without a legal recourse for the injury you incurred as a result of medical negligence.

In Iowa Medical Malpractice Cases, who is Responsible?

When most people think of a medical malpractice lawsuit, they think of an injured patient bringing a lawsuit against an individual, usually a doctor, due to a mistake the doctor made. While that is not an inaccurate description of a medical malpractice claim, there are much more people, and even organizations, in the medical profession that can be held responsible for the injury or death of a patient than simply a doctor.

The law in Iowa states that any health care or medical care professional can be held liable for medical negligence. This includes either an individual or an entity, as long as they are licensed to provide medical services. You may, therefore, bring a claim against hospitals, hospice centers, doctors, dentists, medical technicians, and even certified social workers if you feel their professional negligence caused your injury. [3]

What if I am partially to blame? Can I Still Recover Money for Iowa Medical Malpractice?

Iowa, along with 32 other states recognizes the doctrine of modified comparative fault. The doctrine allows a court to assign a percentage of blame to each party involved in the lawsuit and any damage award is reduced in proportion to your apportioned fault. Of the 33 states that follow a modified version of comparative fault, Iowa is one of 22 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming) that follow a 51% rule where you are only able to recover damages for an injury if a court determines that your apportionment of fault for your own injury is 50% or less. [4]

In other words, if you wish to recover a monetary award for your injury, you must not have contributed more to the injury that the health care provider that you are suing.

For example, imagine you become sick after ingesting medication that was prescribed to you by your doctor. A court finds that your sickness was caused by a combination of a disclosed allergy and food that was against the doctor's instructions that you consumed while on the medication. The court ultimately finds that the doctor never should have prescribed that specific type of medication due to your allergy and assigns the defendant 50% of the blame while assigning 50% of the blame to you for not following the doctor's instructions when you consumed food that was not permitted while on the medication. Since you were assigned 50% of the blame, you would be able to recover a portion of damages because you were not found to have been 51% or more at fault for your injury. If the court awarded $100,000 in damages, you would be able to recover $50,000 after the apportioned 50% of fault is applied.

Some states do not adhere to a modified form of comparative fault and instead follow a doctrine of pure comparative fault where a plaintiff is able to recover for damages even if they are found to have been 99% at fault for their injury. An argument against the adoption of pure comparative fault is that it is contrary to the nature and purpose of the legal system to allow a plaintiff who has substantially contributed to their own injury to recover damages for any portion of their loss. This is a reason why Iowa decided to adopt a modified system.

Are there medical malpractice recovery caps in Iowa?

Upon the conclusion of a successful medical malpractice claim, a monetary award, known as damages, will be awarded to you by the court. The law in Iowa has established different types of damage awards that you may receive:

Compensatory Damages are awarded for the purpose of helping to put a person back in the position which existed before their injury occurred. Under the compensatory damages umbrella is two sub-categories; General Damages and Special Damages.

General Damages link the defendant's conduct with your injury. General damages can include an award for pain and suffering; mental anguish; lowered quality of life; disfigurement and impairment.

Special Damages are damages that compensate you for financial losses suffered as a result of the defendant's actions. Special damages may come in the form of an award for covering the cost of surgery; lost wages and future earning capacity; past medical expenses and future medical expenses.

Punitive Damages do not compensate you for your injury. Instead, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and deter future behavior similar to that of the defendant. For punitive damages to be awarded, you must prove that the defendant acted with willful or wanton conduct.

The law in Iowa is friendly to medical malpractice victims in that it does not cap the amount of damages that you may receive in a medical malpractice action.

Expert witness reporting and testimony

An expert witness is a person who specializes in a subject and who may present their expert opinion without having been a witness to any occurrence relating to the claim being brought before the court.

The testimony of an expert witness is of utmost importance in Iowa because, in order to have a successful outcome, you must prove:

  • There was a breach of the standard of care owed by the physician by an act or omission and that caused the plaintiff's injury; and
  • The breach of the requisite standard of care was the proximate cause of the injury

The law in Iowa requires the use of expert testimony to establish that a breach of the applicable standard of care occurred. [5]

The law in Iowa considers a witness to be an expert if the person's medical or dental qualifications relate directly to the medical problem or problems at issue and the type of treatment administered in the case. [6]

Unlike some other states, the Law in Iowa does not mandate that you file a pre-suit notice or expert affidavit.

Are some parties immune from medical negligence cases?

The law in Iowa, more specifically the Iowa Tort Claims Act, provides a waiver of the state's sovereign immunity. This means that the state may be sued for torts, such as personal injuries, caused by the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of state employees while acting within the scope of employment to the same extent that a private person may be sued. [7] Iowa considers an employee of the state to be a person acting on behalf of the state regardless of if they receive compensation for their job duties. [8]

Settling medical malpractice cases in Iowa

The law in Iowa does not require the use of alternative dispute resolution prior to the case reaching the trial stage of litigation. Upon filing your claim with the appropriate court, your case may proceed directly to trial if you wish. However, Iowa does offer methods of alternative dispute resolution that may be sought on a voluntary basis.

Mediation involves all parties, including at least one attorney for each side and an insurance adjustor with the authority to settle the case. The mediation session itself is informal. During the session, the mediator will attempt to assist both sides in understanding the issues in the case, encouraging a discussion and ultimately a settlement. If at the end of the session a settlement is unable to be reached, the session will conclude and the case will move forward to trial.

Arbitration is another form of alternative dispute resolution that is honored in Iowa. Arbitration is a hearing where each party appears, all witnesses are heard, and testimony is under oath. Once each side has made their case to an impartial arbitrator, the arbitrator will make a decision based on the law to provide a resolution to the dispute. The arbitrator's decision is not binding unless both sides agree in writing to a binding decision.

Litigating medical negligence cases in Iowa

A claim for medical malpractice in Iowa begins with the filing of a complaint. The complaint must specifically describe the alleged malpractice that occurred and the relief that is being sought.

In most cases, after a defendant receives the complaint from the plaintiff, a claim for medical malpractice is settled prior to the lawsuit going to trial. However, in situations where a settlement cannot be reached, the case will proceed to the litigation stage.

Initiating the Case

In Iowa, a civil action commences with the filing of the complaint with the appropriate court.

A complaint should include:

• A statement in ordinary and concise language of facts showing that the court has jurisdiction of the claim and is the proper venue and that the plaintiff is entitled to relief,

• A demand for the relief to which the plaintiff considers himself entitled [9]

Each complaint must be accompanied by a cover sheet. [10]

A civil summons must accompany the filing of the complaint. The summons lets the named defendants know that a lawsuit has been filed against them. The complaint and summons must then be delivered to all named defendants in the lawsuit. The defendants must then file an Answer which admits and/or denies statements made in the complaint. The Answer should include:

• Reasons for denial of the relief sought by the plaintiff

• Affirmative defenses

• Affirmative relief sought by the defendant

• Whether there will be a counter-claim, set-off, cross-claim, or third-party claim

• The address of the defendant or their attorney

After the complaint is properly filed with the court, the litigation process has begun from a statute of limitations standpoint. Once the defendant(s) is served, he has twenty (20) days to file an answer at the same court. [11]

Preparing for Litigation

After the complaint and answer have been filed in the appropriate court, the parties may begin the discovery process. Discovery is the formal process of exchanging information between parties about the witnesses and evidence that will be presented at trial.

The discovery process can include requests for the production of medical records, physician notes, the taking of depositions, interrogatories, and requests for admission. Essentially, the discovery process can include almost anything that can help bolster a legal argument.

A deposition is witness's sworn out-of-court testimony used to gather information as part of the discovery process and, in limited circumstances, may be used at trial. [12] In most cases, the plaintiff, as well as all named defendants, may be deposed prior to trial in addition to certain witnesses and, in the case of a medical malpractice claim, doctors. The actual deposition involves a question and answer session between opposing counsel and the involved parties. Attorneys are present in order to help advise their client on how to answer certain questions as well as to make objections if necessary.

Interrogatories are a set of written questions which set forth the facts of your claims. The questions are served on the other side and they must be answered under oath.

In a medical malpractice case, it is possible that you will need to be medically evaluated in order to corroborate that the injury being complained of does in fact exist.

Pretrial Litigation

The parties involved in a medical malpractice claim are allowed to agree to a settlement at any point prior to the beginning of a trial. The litigation process is lengthy and expensive and because of this, many cases settle prior to going to trial. Settlement can take place during mandated alternative dispute resolution sessions. However, if the parties are unable to come to a settlement agreement during mediation, arbitration or neutral evaluation, trial is likely the next step in the litigation process.

Trial

If the parties are unable to reach a settlement at any point, the case will go to trial.

During a trial, all admissible evidence will be presented to the 'trier of fact' who is a person or group of people who hear testimony and review evidence in order to issue a ruling in favor of one party or another. There are two potential triers of fact in a personal injury case in the state of Iowa: a judge or a jury.

To choose a jury, a procedure known as “voir dire” is conducted whereby each side's attorney asks potential jurors questions in order to determine what biases the panel members may have in favor or against the case being brought before the court. Once this process is completed, both sides will decide what parties they would like to remove from juror consideration. Once each side finishes announcing the parties they wish to have removed, a jury of six will be impaneled. [13]

In Iowa, a person is considered to be qualified to be a juror if they are:

  • A citizen of the United States
  • At least 18 years of age
  • Able to understand the English language in a written, spoken, or manually signed mode
  • Able to receive and evaluate information such that the person is capable of rendering satisfactory juror service. [14]

After the jury selection is completed, opening statements will begin. During opening statements, each side will present what they believe the evidence will show during the course of the trial process.

From there, the plaintiff will begin to argue their case. Witnesses will likely be called and expert testimony will be used to attempt to show that the physician was negligent and that the negligence was the cause of the plaintiff's injury.

Once the plaintiff finishes the presentation of their case, the defense will begin to present their case. The defense will present the physician's side of the case and attempt to show why negligence was not involved in creating the patient's injury and likely that the plaintiff significantly contributed to their own injury.

Once both sides have argued their cases, closing arguments will take place and jury instructions will then be given by the judge to the jury. The jury is then free to deliberate and come back with a finding.

Appeal

It is not uncommon for the losing side in a medical malpractice case to appeal a decision from the lower court to a higher court. An appeal allows the higher court to review the actions of a lower court in order to determine if the law was appropriately applied.

In Iowa, all appeals are made directly to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will then either decide to hear the case or refer the matter to the Court of Appeals. [15] If either party wishes to appeal a decision rendered by a lower court, the appeal must be filed within thirty (30) days of the order. [16]

How to find the best Iowa Medical Malpractice Lawyer for your case

If you or a loved one has had the unfortunate experience of being injured as a result of medical malpractice, it is likely that the last thing you want to do is deal with the intricacies and nuances associated with filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. Hiring strong legal representation can help to take your mind off of the legalese so that you can focus on healing and moving forward with your life.

One of the main motivating factors in bringing a medical malpractice lawsuit against a healthcare provider that caused your injury is to receive proper compensation for the pain, suffering, and monetary losses you have likely endured. To enhance the chances that you will be compensated, it is important that you find legal counsel that fits your needs. Asking the right questions during the interview process can mean the difference between your case progressing smoothly versus having a disastrous outcome.

When looking to hire legal representation, it is important to remember that the attorney will be working for you – not the other way around. Take your time and interview more than one firm so that you can get a good sense of what each firm brings to the table.

It is important to ask an attorney or law firm their level of experience in the world of law centered on medical malpractice. In law, experience is a plus. You will want a seasoned attorney or firm that has seen many different scenarios that can come into play in a medical malpractice case. You may also want to ask how many cases they have handled that are similar to yours. If they have had experience with cases with facts similar to yours, they may be able to give insight into how long the case may last and what your expected damages may be in addition to what their success rate has been.

Medical malpractice cases may be paid for in one of two ways; an hourly rate or a contingency fee. Under an hourly agreement, an attorney will charge you an agreed upon rate per hour worked on your case. Meanwhile, a contingency fee agreement does not require an hourly payment. Instead, the attorney will be paid a percentage of the damages you are ultimately awarded by the court. The law in Iowa does not limit the fees that an attorney may recover in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Make sure to ask prospective legal representation about their fee and what you can expect to pay.

You should also ask your potential attorney or firm how they communicate with their clients. Communication is incredibly important. However, many people communicate in different ways which can lead to frustration if the methods used between the parties do not mesh. Finding out early that the attorney-client relationship is not going to work is incredibly important since changing attorneys or firms in the middle of litigation is a time consuming and arduous process.

Some notable medical malpractice law decisions from Iowa

These cases represent awards to plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases in Iowa. It is important to note results in the past are no guarantee of results in subsequent cases with similar circumstances.

Bailey v. Feldhaus

The plaintiff, Tony Bailey, went to Jennie Edmundson Hospital after he was suffering from severe pain in his lower left leg. He was treated at the emergency room and then transferred to surgery which was performed by Dr. Steven Feldhaus. However, after complications arose, Tony Bailey's leg was amputated.

Tony Bailey and his wife felt that professional negligence was involved in his treatment and that doctors should have known that Tony Bailey needed blood flow in his leg due to an existing artery malady. However, a complete arterial pulse exam was not completed. Additionally, Bailey claimed that the nurses failed to let the physicians know that he was experiencing numbness in his leg.

A lawsuit was filed against Jennie Edmundson Hospital, Dr. Steven Feldhaus, Heart Lung and Vascular Surgery, the nurses involved in the treatment and the Emergency Physicians of Western Iowa.

Ultimately, the jury did not find Jennie Edmundson Hospital nor Emergency Physicians of Western Iowa responsible. However, they did find Dr. Steven Feldhaus and Heart Lung and Vascular Surgery liable. The jury awarded damages in the amount of $22,500 for past loss of full mind and body, $22,500 in future loss of full mind and body, $22,500 for past pain and suffering and $22,500 in future pain and suffering.

Gardner v. Broadlawns Medical Center

The plaintiff, Debra Gardner, gave birth to a child with cerebral palsy due to a lack of oxygen. The plaintiff filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Broadlawns Medical Center and two doctors based upon the claim that professional negligence impacted the delivery of her son and caused his condition.

The plaintiff contended that doctors at the hospital failed to properly monitor her son throughout the Caesarian section delivery and that during the procedure, her son was deprived of oxygen for up to 25 minutes. Gardner argued that had the hospital and its staff followed established standards of care which include consistent fetal heart monitoring, it is likely that the boy's injuries would have been avoided.

The jury agreed and found Broadlawns Medical Center 75% responsible for the boy's injuries and awarded $13.5 million in damages.

Footnotes

[1] Iowa Code § 614.1

[2] Iowa Code § 614.1

[3] Iowa Code § 135.24(d)

[4] Iowa Code § 668.3(1)(b)

[5] Forsmark v. State, 349 N.W.2d 763 (Iowa 1984)

[6] Iowa Code § 147.139

[7] Iowa Code § 669.2(3)(a)

[8] Iowa Code § 669.2(4)(a)

[9] Iowa R. Civ. P 1.301

[10] Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.301(2)

[11] Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.303

[12] Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.701

[13] Iowa R. Civ. P. 4109

[14] Iowa Code § 607A.4

[15] Iowa R. Civ. P. 6.1101

[16] Iowa R. App. P. 6.101(1)(b)

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