Iowa Supreme Court Rejects State’s Immunity Claim

Oct 12, 2010 | News & Views, What's New

Iowa has specific rules governing the drainage of surface water. But, is the state subject to the same rules? That question was addressed in this case.

Residents who sustained property damage in a northeast Iowa flood in 1999 can sue the state for highway construction that allegedly raised the water levels. The Iowa Supreme Court issued its opinion last month in Schneider, et al. v. State of Iowa, allowing the lawsuit filed by 26 business and property owners in the town of Denver, IA, to proceed in Bremer County District Court.

In 1990, an FIS established a floodway on the reach of Quarter Section Run Creek that is the subject of the litigation. During 1993-94, the Iowa State DOT constructed a highway bypass and bridge designed to pass the 50-year flood requirements. The bridge spanned Section Run Creek, but the bridge embankment encroached on the floodway. In testimony, the expert for Iowa DOT acknowledged that a higher Q100 standard was typically used when sizing bridges in areas having an FIS and in areas of high damage potential for upstream structures, but claimed that the State did not know of the floodway established in 1990 until after the bridge was built. In May 1999, the region experienced a flood that damaged structures. An NRCS study of the flood determined that the bridge embankment caused flooding to structures that otherwise would not have flooded. During 2004-2005, the State redesigned and extended the bridge to substantially comply with requirement to pass the 100-year flood requirements. Landowners sued the state in district court, alleging negligent design and construction of the original highway project in the floodway, and that the state’s breach of common law and statutory duties caused the landowners’ property to flood. The State claimed immunity based on the discretionary nature of its work on bridge design, which the State claimed conformed to the engineering standards, criteria, or design theory prevailing at the time. The landowners countered that the standard at the time of design was for the project to be able to pass the 100-year flood requirements. The district court granted the State’s motion for summary judgment, in part based on its reasoning that the State was immune from liability because the bypass design and construction were discretionary functions that entailed “considerable planning” and a “balancing of governmental priorities and competing governmental demands.” The landowners appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Iowa Supreme Court considered whether the State’s immunity claim met the following two-pronged test: 1) whether an element of judgment or discretion was involved in the design or construction of the bypass project, and 2) if so, whether that judgment or discretion was the type the state legislature intended to shield from liability. The court agreed with the landowners that “the state had no discretion or choice in determining whether the bridge could be designed and built to encroach on the floodway.”

The progress of this case to date has tracked established jurisprudence in Iowa and most other states, breaking little new ground so far. The District Court will have to determine at trial whether the original bridge design and construction violated prevailing engineering standards at the time of the original design and construction of the project. What may be most important is the state supreme court’s rejection of the state’s immunity claim, affirming that the state’s transportation department conformance with statutory requirements is nondiscretionary and not shielded from liability resulting from nonconformance. State and local floodplain managers may wish to refer to the Iowa case in discussions with your State DOTs. Schneider, et al. v. State, No. 07-0887, 2010 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 90 (Iowa Sup. Ct. Sept. 3, 2010), vacating, Schneider v. State of Iowa, 759 N.W.2d 2 (Iowa Ct. App. 2008).