Iowa Personal Injury Laws & Liability Rules

Learn about Iowa’s auto insurance system, time limits to file a lawsuit, caps on personal injury damages, and more.

By , Attorney

If you've been hurt in an Iowa accident—maybe in a car wreck, a slip and fall mishap, or by a dangerous product—you might be thinking about filing a personal injury (PI) insurance claim or lawsuit. Chances are you don't know much about the Iowa laws and court rules that will control your case.

We'll walk you through some of the basics, including filing deadlines, where and how to file a lawsuit, Iowa's motor vehicle insurance requirements, and more.

Iowa's Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Lawsuits

Like every state, Iowa has deadlines, called "statutes of limitations," on filing personal injury lawsuits in court. Let's start with Iowa's general rule, then turn to some exceptions and special deadlines that might apply in particular cases.

General Rule: Two Years From the Date of Injury

As a general rule, you must bring a lawsuit for "injuries to the person or reputation" within two years from the date of your injury. (Iowa Code § 614.1.2 (2023).) Injury to "reputation" refers to a defamation claim.

Malpractice Lawsuits

A malpractice lawsuit against a health care provider or a hospital must be filed within:

  • two years from the date on which you actually discovered or you should have discovered your injury, but
  • not more than six years from the date of the malpractice, unless your injury was caused by a foreign object accidentally left in your body, in which case the two-year rule applies.

(Iowa Code § 614.1.9.a (2023).)

When a child younger than eight years old is injured by malpractice, a suit must be filed by the child's tenth birthday. (Iowa Code § 614.1.9.b (2023).)

Claims Against Municipalities

A person who claims to have been injured by "any municipality or any officer, employee, or agent of a municipality," must file suit within two years from the date of injury. This limitation period doesn't apply if the injured person is a minor or is mentally disabled as described in Iowa Code § 614.8 (2023) (see below). (Iowa Code § 670.5 (2023).)

Defendant Out of State or Identity Is Unknown

The statute of limitations clock doesn't run for the period of time that:

  • the party you're suing (the "defendant") doesn't live in the state, or
  • you can't identify the defendant, despite diligent efforts, and your injuries were caused by a felony or certain misdemeanors.

(Iowa Code § 614.6.1 (2023).)

Minors and People Who Are Mentally Disabled

A person who suffers from "mental illness" has one year from the date their disability ends to file a PI lawsuit. (Iowa Code § 614.8.1 (2023).) A minor has one year from their 18th birthday to sue. (Iowa Code § 614.8.2 (2023).) These exceptions don't apply when the claim is for:

  • a minor who's been injured by medical malpractice (see above)
  • a minor who's been injured by the unauthorized disclosure of intimate images
  • an injury caused by Iowa or its municipalities, or
  • certain civil rights violations.

(Iowa Code § 614.8.1-2 (2023).)

When the Injured Person Dies

When an injured person dies within the one-year period immediately before the statute of limitations expires, a PI lawsuit can be filed within one year of the person's death. (Iowa Code § 614.9 (2023).)

Additional Filing Required for PI Claims Against Iowa

Your PI lawsuit against Iowa is "forever barred" unless, within two years from the date you're injured, you file your claim, in writing, with the director of the Iowa Department of Management. Importantly, note that filing your claim in this way is not the same as filing a lawsuit in court. You must file a written claim with the department as a prerequisite to later filing suit in court.

Iowa's Motor Vehicle Insurance System

Let's begin with Iowa's fault-based insurance system. Then we'll look at the state's minimum insurance requirements.

Iowa Is a Fault-Based Insurance State

To register your motor vehicle in Iowa, you must comply with the state's financial responsibility law (FRL). Most people satisfy the FRL by purchasing an auto liability insurance policy that meets Iowa's minimum coverage requirements (see below).

Suppose you're hurt in a car wreck caused by a negligent (careless) Iowa driver. Iowa's fault-based insurance law allows you to bring an insurance claim or a lawsuit against that driver to collect compensation (called "damages"). If your claim or suit is successful, you can collect damages for your medical bills, lost wages and benefits, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and more.

Iowa's Minimum Liability Insurance Requirements

To satisfy Iowa's FRL, a motor vehicle insurance policy must provide coverages of at least:

  • $20,000 for bodily injury to, or the death of, one person in one accident
  • $40,000 for bodily injuries to, or the deaths of, two or more persons in one accident, and
  • $15,000 for property damage caused in one accident.

(Iowa Code § 321A.21.2.b (2023).)

Is Iowa's Minimum Coverage Enough?

Truth be told, Iowa's minimum liability coverages will run out quickly if you're responsible for an accident that causes serious injuries. Remember: You're on the hook for all damages you cause, whether or not you've got enough insurance.

In addition, the fact that Iowa law only requires liability insurance doesn't mean that's the only coverage you need. What happens if you're hurt by an uninsured (or underinsured) driver? How will you pay to repair or replace your car if it's damaged or destroyed in a wreck that's your fault? Your liability insurance won't cover those losses.

Talk to your insurance agent about the right coverages—and the right amounts of coverage—for your needs.

What If I'm Partly to Blame for an Accident?

To win a typical personal injury case, you've got to prove that the defendant was legally at fault, or negligent. Quite often, the defendant will claim that you were at least partly to blame for what happened. This defense is called "comparative negligence," and it's available in Iowa. Here's how it works.

Iowa Is a "Modified Comparative Negligence" State

Iowa has adopted what's known as a "modified comparative negligence" rule. Under this rule, you can collect some damages for your injuries—as long as you were less than 50% at fault for the accident.

Your percentage share of the total negligence simply reduces the damages you can recover by that amount. But if you're found to be 50% or more at fault, you're not allowed to collect any damages.

(Iowa Code § 668.3.1 (2023).)

Modified Comparative Negligence Example

Suppose you're hurt in an auto accident. The other driver was clearly at fault, but you were speeding at the time of the wreck. After a trial, the jury finds your total damages are $50,000 and assigns 80% of the blame to the other driver. Because you were speeding, the jury decides you were 20% at fault. How much in damages will you be able to collect?

You were 20% responsible for the accident, so under Iowa law, you can collect 80% of your damages: $50,000 x 80% = $40,000. The other driver's insurance company will write you a check for that amount. What would be the result had the jury decided you were 50% (or more) to blame? You'd get zero damages under Iowa's modified comparative negligence rule.

Where and How to File an Iowa PI Lawsuit

Your personal injury case is a type of civil lawsuit. Where and how you file your suit will be decided by Iowa statutes and court rules called the Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure. These rules are complicated and can be difficult to understand and apply. If you aren't familiar with them—and chances are you're not—you should seriously consider hiring an experienced Iowa lawyer to handle your case.

Where to File Your Lawsuit

The entry-level Iowa trial court—where most criminal and civil cases begin—is called the district court. Every Iowa county has one district court. Iowa law instructs you to file your PI lawsuit in the county where:

  • the defendant, or any one of the defendants, lives, or
  • your injury happened.

(Iowa Code § 616.18 (2023).)

If the defendant doesn't live in Iowa, you can file suit in the county where you live or you were injured. (Iowa Code § 617.3.7 (2023).)

How to File Your Lawsuit

You start your PI lawsuit by filing a petition in the district court. (Iowa R. Civ. Proc. 1.301(1) (2023).) Your petition must be accompanied by a cover sheet, which you can get from the court clerk. (Iowa R. Civ. Proc. 1.301(2) (2023).) You'll also need to pay the filing fee unless the court has waived it.

In separately numbered paragraphs (Iowa R. Civ. Proc. 1.412 (2023)), your petition should describe:

  • the parties who are involved in the case
  • when, where, and how your injuries happened
  • your injuries
  • what the defendant did wrong that caused your injuries, and
  • the relief (usually money damages) you want the court to grant you.

When describing the relief you want, you're not allowed to demand a specific amount of damages. (Iowa Code § 619.18 (2023).) Be sure to include the information required by Iowa R. Civ. Proc. 1.411(1) (2023).

Finally, sometimes the law requires your petition to allege (or omit) specific things, depending on the kind of PI case you're filing. Check the law and the court rules to make sure your petition complies with those pleading requirements.

Once you've filed your petition and cover sheet, you must serve each defendant with a copy of the petition and a "notice" that meets the requirements of Iowa R. Civ. Proc. 1.302(1) (2023). The court rules describe, in some detail, when and how service must be accomplished. (See, for example, Iowa R. Civ. Proc. 1.305-1.315 (2023).) The court can dismiss from your lawsuit any defendant who's not been properly served.

Does Iowa Limit Damages in Personal Injury Cases?

Iowa is one of many states that puts limits, sometimes called "caps," on PI damages. Specifically, Iowa caps "noneconomic" damages in medical malpractice cases.

What Are "Noneconomic" Damages?

In most PI cases, you can collect both "economic" and "noneconomic" damages. Economic damages reimburse you for medical bills, lost wages and benefits, the costs of replacement services, and other out-of-pocket expenses you pay because of an injury. Iowa law doesn't cap these damages.

Noneconomic damages are designed to make you whole for injuries like pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of companionship, disfigurement, and the like. Iowa caps these noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases.

Iowa's Noneconomic Damages Caps

Iowa law includes both a "soft" cap and a "hard" cap on noneconomic damages. Here's how it works.

In a medical malpractice case, noneconomic damages are capped at $250,000. It's called a "soft" cap because a jury can award more than $250,000 if it finds "a substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function, substantial disfigurement, or death, [such that] a limitation would deprive the plaintiff of just compensation for the injuries sustained." (Iowa Code § 147.136A.2 (2023).)

In February 2023, Iowa's governor signed into law H.F. 161, putting a "hard" cap on top of the existing soft cap, which remains in the law. For malpractice cases arising after the effective date of the act, noneconomic damages greater than $250,000 can't exceed $1 million, or $2 million if a hospital is a defendant. (Learn more about Iowa's hard malpractice damages cap law.)

The law provides that on January 1 of each year, the $250,000 soft cap will be increased by 2.1%. Starting on January 1, 2028, the hard cap will also be increased by 2.1% annually. Iowa's Insurance Commissioner must publish the adjusted cap figures each year on the insurance division's website.

What's Next?

If you're looking for legal advice that's tailored to your situation, talk to a personal injury lawyer in your area. You can also learn more about personal injury lawsuits, settlements, alternatives to resolving your case in court, and more:

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