Iowa Medical Malpractice Laws & Statutory Rules

Get an overview of the relevant laws, time limits, and procedural rules to bring a lawsuit against a doctor or other medical professional in Iowa.

If you're thinking of filing a medical malpractice lawsuit in Iowa, there are a number of laws you'll need to be familiar with before you head to court. Medical malpractice cases are typically very complicated, and you'll most likely need the help of an experienced attorney as you pursue your claim. But it can also be helpful to understand the basic outlines of the process before you get started. In this article, we'll look at a few state laws that could affect your case, including:

  • the time limits on filing a medical malpractice claim
  • the procedural rules that apply to these cases, including the "certificate of merit" requirement
  • the limits on damages in successful Iowa medical malpractice cases, and
  • what happens if you are partially responsible for your injuries.

The Statute of Limitations for Medical Malpractice Lawsuits in Iowa

Each state has laws setting strict deadlines on much time a plaintiff (the person filing a lawsuit) has to bring a case to court. These laws are called "statutes of limitations." There are different deadlines for different types of lawsuits, and Iowa—like most states—has a specific statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases. If the injured patient fails to get the lawsuit filed before the applicable time limit expires, the court will almost certainly dismiss the case—and the patient will have lost the right to pursue compensation for a health care provider's negligence. That's why it's so important to understand—and adhere to—the statute of limitations.

Iowa law, which applies the "discovery rule" in medical malpractice cases, states that you have two years from the date you knew, "or through the use of reasonable diligence should have known, or received notice in writing of the existence of" the injury—whichever happens first. There is a broader period of limitation (called a "statute of repose") that says that no medical malpractice case can be filed more than six years after the date of the medical error, even if you couldn't have reasonably discovered the mistake within that time. The one exception is for cases where a foreign object—such as a surgical instrument or sponge—was unintentionally left in the patient's body. In that situation, the plaintiff still has two years from the date the object was discovered to file the claim, even if more than six years have passed.

Finally, if the patient was a child younger than eight years of age at the time of the injury, the child (or a parent or guardian) must file the medical malpractice claim no later than the child's tenth birthday, or as described above—whichever is later.

(Iowa Code § 614.1(9) (2022).)

The "Certificate of Merit Affidavit" and Expert Witness Requirements in Iowa Medical Malpractice Cases

In the state's efforts at tort reform, Iowa legislators have recently enacted a number of procedural rules that a potential plaintiff in a medical malpractice suit must follow. One of the most important involves the "certificate of merit affidavit." Under Iowa law, before discovery begins in the case and within 60 days of the defendant health care provider's answer to the plaintiff's complaint (the document that starts the case), the plaintiff must serve each named health care provider with a certificate of merit affidavit. The affidavit must be signed by a qualified expert witness, who certifies under oath that:

  • the expert witness is familiar with the applicable medical standard of care, and
  • that the defendant health care provider has breached the applicable standard of care.

Be aware that the law provides a stiff penalty for failing to follow these rules: If you fail to obtain and serve the certificate of merit affidavit, the court can dismiss the case "with prejudice," which means that you're barred from filing another lawsuit over the same act of medical malpractice.

Iowa Code § 147.140 spells out all of these specific requirements. And see Iowa Code § 147.139 for details on who qualifies as an expert witness in Iowa.

Iowa's Medical Malpractice Damage Caps and Shared Fault Rules

Also as part of the state's broader tort reform efforts, Iowa lawmakers have placed limits (called "caps") on the amount of compensation ("damages") a plaintiff can receive in a successful medical malpractice case.

Like most states with such limits, Iowa's caps on compensation apply only to noneconomic damages. Noneconomic damages are intended to compensate for the types of injuries that are harder to put a specific dollar amount on, such as pain and suffering, inconvenience, loss of consortium, and physical impairment. In Iowa, noneconomic damages are capped at $250,000 per act of medical malpractice, unless the jury determines that the "there is a substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function, substantial disfigurement, or death," and that the damage cap would deprive the plaintiff of "just compensation for the injuries sustained." (Iowa Code § 147.136A (2022).)

It's important to note that the damage cap doesn't apply to economic damages, which can include compensation for lost wages and the costs of past or future medical care. There are no statutory limits to the amount of economic damages you can be awarded in an Iowa medical malpractice case.

At this point you might be wondering what happens if the court finds you partly responsible for causing your injuries, for instance, by not following all of your doctor's instructions. In those cases, Iowa follows a "modified comparative negligence" rule. This means you can still recover damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit, but your award will be reduced according to your share of the fault—as long as your share of the fault is not greater than that of all the other parties. In other words, you can't be found to be more than 50 percent responsible for your injuries. If you are, you won't be entitled to recover any damages at all.

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