Construction Law Update: Iowa Supreme Court Expands Contractors' Potential Liability for Violation of City Ordinances
On June 24, 2016, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision that expands contractors’ potential liability for violation of city ordinances. The case is set in the context of a landlord-tenant personal-injury dispute, but its ruling affects the Iowa construction industry.
In Winger v. CM Holdings, LLC, a Des Moines apartment unit’s balcony guardrails were 32 inches high, which violated a Des Moines city ordinance that required the guardrails to be 42 inches high. A tenant’s visitor died after falling off the balcony, and her estate filed a wrongful-death action against the landlord and claimed that the landlord’s violation of the ordinance constituted negligence per se. Under the estate’s negligence-per-se claim, violation of the city ordinance would establish the landlord’s negligence without the need for any further evidence. The Supreme Court agreed with the estate’s argument.
Prior to the Winger case, Iowa law only permitted the violation of statewide standards to constitute negligence per se. This effectively meant that city ordinances could not serve as the basis for a negligence-per-se claim. The Winger Court, however, overruled that law and ruled that violation of a safety-related city ordinance can constitute negligence per se for personal injury claims. As a result, any city’s safety-related ordinance potentially establishes a standard the violation of which could conclusively subject the violator to liability for a negligence-per-se claim and resulting personal injuries.
Although the facts and ruling in Winger are limited to the landlord-tenant context, the case can reasonably be applied to the construction context. It is likely, after Winger, that contractors can be subject to negligence-per-se liability for personal injuries caused by their violation of safety-related city ordinances. Because cities have the power to implement their own safety-related city ordinances, Winger creates a patchwork of different construction standards with which contractors must comply lest they be subject to conclusive liability for personal injuries caused by their violation of a city’s safety-related ordinance.
A link to the PDF version of the Iowa Supreme Court Opinion can be found here.