When Can You Sue For The Violation Of A State Statute?

By harley erbe

Sometimes the violation of a state statute, especially a criminal law, also gives rise to a civil claim for money damages.  Examples include employment law, private nuisance law, personal injury or wrongful death, truck accident, drunk driving, motorcycle accident, car accident, products liability, dog bite, or premises liability claims.  Many statutes, particularly those that govern employment matters such as overtime law, wage law, Family and Medical Leave Act, disability discrimination, some types of wrongful termination cases, and drug testing law, specifically provide a mechanism within the statute through which employees can enforce their legal rights in civil court.  But what if someone violates a statute, most commonly a criminal statute, that doesn't explicitly provide a right to sue for money damages in civil court?  Can the victim also file a civil lawsuit for violation of the statute?

Occasionally, the violation of a criminal statute automatically gives rise to a money damages claim because the law has already recognized such a claim, regardless of what the criminal statute states.  The most common example of this is car accidents and truck accidents.  There may be a crime committed by violation of the motor vehicle code or a drunk driving law.  None of those criminal statutes include specific language allowing victims to sue in civil court for money damages.  Yet there's no question that civil liability can arise from motor vehicle code violations and drunk driving.   Another example is assault and battery.  Both are crimes under Iowa law, but those criminal statutes don't need special language to allow a victim to sue for money damages for assault and battery

The gray area includes those statutes that neither specifically include a civil enforcement provision nor encompass conduct that the law's already recognized as allowing for civil liability.  Not all statutory violations give rise to a private cause of action in civil court.  A private statutory cause of action exists only when the statute, explicitly or implicitly, provides for such a cause of action.  A private right of action is the right of an individual to bring suit to remedy or prevent an injury that results from another party’s actual or threatened violation of a legal requirement. 

To determine if a statute implicitly creates the right to sue in civil court, Iowa's courts ask if the legislature intended to create not just a private right but also a private remedy.  In determining the legislature’s intent, Iowa uses a four-factor test:

1.  Is the plaintiff a member of the class for whose benefit the statute was enacted?

2.  Is there any indication of legislative intent, explicit or implicit, to either create or deny such a remedy? 

3.  Would allowing such a cause of action be consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislation?

4.  Would the private cause of action intrude into an area over which the federal government or a state administrative agency holds exclusive jurisdiction?

No private cause of action for civil law remedies exists unless all four questions are satisfactorily answered.  This is an issue that the trial judge would be asked to answer as a matter of law very early in the civil lawsuit.  Therefore, before suing for a violation of a statute that doesn't already have an explicit or implicit right to a private cause of action, it's important to consider the four factor test and be prepared to answer those questions when the issue's raised early in the civil court proceedings.

By Harley Erbe

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