Last week the Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision (Garr v. City of Ottumwa) that applies Iowa's evolving law of causation to flood damage claims. Homeowners sued Ottumwa, alleging that the city negligently approved a development that caused flooding to their downstream home. Although this case concerned a flood damage claim, it also included important reminders about the importance of proving causation (that the defendant did something that caused harm) in negligence cases seeking money damages for property injuries or personal injury or wrongful death, whether caused by a truck accident, drunk driving, motorcycle accident, car accident, products liability, dog bite, or premises liability.
Plaintiffs in negligence cases must prove causation. To determine whether a defendant caused a plaintiff’s harm, Iowa applies a “but-for” test. Under that rule, a defendant’s conduct is a cause in fact of the plaintiff’s harm if, but-for the defendant’s conduct, the plaintiff's harm would not have occurred. Cause in fact must exist between the defendant’s negligence and the damages sought by the plaintiff.
In Garr the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that the homeowners had failed to prove that any negligent conduct by Ottumwa was not a cause in fact of the homeowners' damages. The homeowners claimed that Ottumwa was negligent by failing to: (1) protect downstream property owners from increased water flow due to development approved by the City that led to the Garrs’ flooding and property damage; (2) establish storm water detention projects to protect the Garrs and other downstream property owners from increased water flow caused by development approved and managed by the City; and (3) comply with its policies regarding storm water management and flooding. The homeowners might have won their case had they been able to connect those negligence specifications with the flooding that later occurred.
The problem for the homeowners was that the trial evidence strongly suggested that a significant, rare rainstorm occurred in the area of the Garrs’ home on August 20, 2010, to the point that nothing Ottumwa did or didn't do caused the flooding or could've prevented it. The calculations by the homeowners' own expert indicated that at least 6.1 inches of rain fell in the area over a 24-hour period. Other evidence indicated that at least 6.8 inches of rain fell in that time period, which would have been significant to create a 100-year flood event.
Even with such an extraordinarily heavy rainfall, Ottumwa was not necessarily absolved of all liability because there may be more than one cause in fact of a plaintiff’s damages. So the major rainstorm was not, standing alone, a cause that relieves Ottumwa of its liability for the homeowners’ damages. But the homeowners still lost because there was no evidence that the Ottumwa’s negligence caused any damages. The testimony by the homeowners' expert confirmed that no reasonable efforts by Ottumwa to control upstream drainage, or other flood control measures, could have prevented the flooding to the property in such a heavy rain event. Thus the damage to the property, which the evidence established sat in a 100-year floodplain, would have occurred regardless of any negligence by Ottumwa.By Harley Erbe