For over two decades, businesses and individuals that violated city ordinances were not being held accountable for injuries and deaths caused by their violations to the same extent as those that violated state statutes. On June 27th, 2016, in the case of Winger v. CM Holdings, LLC, GRL Law succeeded in changing the law in Iowa to better protect those injured or killed as a result of violations of city ordinances.
Before the Winger decision, violations of city ordinances were considered only evidence of negligence as opposed to negligence as a matter of law. This meant that violators could argue that even if they violated the city ordinance, they still should not be deemed negligent because of whatever excuse they could come up with. Now, after the holding in Winger, if a violation of a city ordinance is established, the violator does not get to make up excuses for the violation and it can result in an indisputable finding of negligence on their part.
Winger was a case involving the tragic and preventable death of 21 year old Shannon Potts, who died when she fell from a second story balcony that had railings ten inches lower than the Des Moines Housing Code required at the time. The defendant, CM Holdings (the business entity that owned the property and included as a partner, Mark Critelli, a habitual housing code violator) had received multiple notices that the handrails were a violation of the City Housing Code and still did not fix the problem. Just ten days prior to Shannon falling, two of the owner partners were hauled in front of the Housing Board for not having fixed the violation and were warned that the law railings were a health and safety concern. The partners told the Board: “They have not had anybody fall off yet – Not that we know of anyway.” They still failed to fix the railings and failed to warn the renters of the property that it was unsafe to use the balconies before Shannon fell. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of GRL Law’s clients in the amount of $1,750,000. Unfortunately, the trial judge reversed the verdict because he believed that law stated that a violation of a city ordinance could not result in indisputable finding of negligence. GRL Law appealed that decision all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.
On appeal, GRL Law successfully argued to the Iowa Supreme Court that violations of specific city ordinances, meant to protect the health and safety of residents of a city, should be able to result in an automatic finding of negligence on the part of the violator. GRL Law won this argument, overturning a case that had stood as law in Iowa for over two decades. Now, a violation of a city ordinance, including the housing code, has the same legal effect as a violation of a state statute.
Winger also resulted in a change in the law that had been in place for over 45 years. Since 1970, courts would consider narrowly, the status of the person injured or killed as a result of a city or state law violation to the law broken to determine if the violator should be automatically held to be negligent. The old case from 1970 held that for example, handrails were designed to assist people fleeing from fires. Therefore, if a person was injured due to no handrail when they were not fleeing a fire, the lack of handrails would only be evidence of negligence and the defendant could try to convince the jury that they still were not negligent for whatever reason. The Iowa Supreme Court fixed this absurd rule of law that had stood for over 45 years. They overruled that case and instead held that a court should look at the broader class of people the law was meant to protect. To use the old case as an example, it would now protect anyone walking up or down the stairs. In GRL Law’s case, it meant that Shannon, a guest of a renter, could still be protected by housing code requirements.
The case was ultimately remanded for retrial with the trial court being instructed to apply the new principles set out by the Iowa Supreme Court. The end of this story is yet to be written. However, GRL Law is grateful for the opportunity to help make Iowa a safer place and to make sure that those injured or killed as a result of law violations have appropriate remedies in Iowa’s court system.