Iowa Supreme Court Issues Decision Regarding Effect Of Local Ordinances In Premises Liability Cases

On June 24, 2016, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an important decision in Winger v. CM Holdings that concerns the impact of municipal code violations in premises liability/personal injury claims involving rental properties. In Winger, the plaintiffs' daughter was called after she fell off of an apartment balcony. Her parents sued the apartment building's owner. They alleged that the balcony's railings were too short and violated Des Moines city code for rental properties. 

One of the issues on appeal was whether violation of a municipal code constituted automatic negligence ("negligence per se") against the building owner. If violation of a municipal code is negligence per se, then the rental building owner is liable and the only issue for trial is whether the owner's negligence caused the plaintiff's damages and, if so, the amount of those damages. Until the Winger decision, Iowa law had not been entirely clear on whether a local law, like a city code (as opposed to a statewide Iowa Code section or state administrative regulation), could form the basis for a finding of negligence per se.

The Iowa Supreme Court determined that the breach of a specific safety-related requirement in a municipal ordinance with the force of law may constitute negligence per se. The court noted that Iowa has long recognized the violation of a municipal safety ordinance can be negligence per se. The rule is that if a statute or regulation provides a rule of conduct specifically designed for the safety and protection of a certain class of persons, and a person within that class receives injuries as a proximate result of a violation of the statute or regulation, the injuries would be actionable as negligence per se. But to be actionable as negligence per se, the harm for which the action is brought must be of the kind that the statute was intended to prevent; and the person injured, in order to recover, must be within the class which the statute was intended to protect. 

The court concluded that that rule applies equally to municipal ordinances, like the housing code section at issue in Winger.  The ordinance at issue requires forty-two-inch high guardrails on second floor or higher balconies. The obvious purpose for requiring a forty-two-inch high guardrail on balconies above ground level is to protect persons from getting killed or injured falling off the balcony. The plaintiffs' daughter clearly was within the scope of persons intended to be protected from injury by the municipal ordinance. The requirement is sufficiently specific to prescribe a standard of care the violation of which constitutes negligence per se.

In reaching that decision, the court rejected the defendant's argument that only a violation of a statewide law can be negligent per se. Such a ruling would  conflict with Iowa’s public policy encouraging local control over residential housing for public health and safety. The Iowa legislature has specifically allowed local housing ordinances more stringent than statewide standards in Iowa's Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act. The Iowa Legislature thus tolerates, and in fact encourages, local variations in housing codes. Although building codes may differ on either side of a city’s boundary, buildings are in fixed locations. Building owners will not have to deal with inconsistent local codes at a single location. In short, the Iowa Supreme Court saw no good reason to limit application of the negligence per se doctrine to laws of statewide application.

Harley Erbe