Case of the Day – Friday, April 8, 2016

FOOL FOR A CLIENT

Abe Lincoln could have been talking about Mr. Victor, who has a real dummy for a client.

Abe Lincoln could have been talking about Mr. Victor, who has a real dummy for a client.

Honest Abe Lincoln was right: Mr. Victor had a first-class knucklehead for a client. The old lawyer’s proverb warns that “The man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” Today’s case from Iowa puts meat on those bones.

Mr. Victor’s car was hit by a truck at an intersection. That kind of thing happens on a daily basis. After the crash, he took matters into his own hands. That does not.

Usually, people use lawyers for that kind of thing. In fact, lawyers usually take cases like this one on a contingency basis, meaning that they don’t get paid unless you win. Of course, lawyers tend to be picky about the kinds of personal injury actions they will bring, , for the same reason that more people bet on the horse “California Chrome” than lay money down on “Old Glue Factory.” Who wants to waste time and money.

Maybe Mr. Victor didn’t like lawyers. Maybe (as is more likely), no attorney would touch the case from a remote control bunker in the Amazon rain forest. For whatever reason, Mr. Victor represented himself. Apparently subscribing to the old Vladimir Ilyich Lenin maxim, “Quality has a quantity all its own,” Mr. Victor sued the other driver, the company that owned the truck the other driver was operating, the property owner whose trees allegedly obscured the stop sign, the county for poor maintenance of the intersection, and the state for poor design of the road.

Mr. Victor did it all in federal court, no doubt because suing in federal court sounds a whole lot cooler than suing in state court. And it is, too, except for those pesky rules about jurisdiction and sovereign immunity. Guess he only skimmed those chapters in Personal Injury Law for Dummies.

You thought we were kidding? There's really such a book ...

You thought we were kidding? There really is such a book …

By the time the Court was done, the State of Iowa was dismissed as a defendant, as was the property owner. In fact, the only defendant left was the County, which was unable to prove that its tree-trimming practices were a discretionary function. Still, Mr. Victor got pretty badly decimated, proving once again that there’s a reason trained professionals cost money – it’s because they know what they’re doing.

Victor v. Iowa, Slip Copy, 1999 WL 34805679 (N.D. Iowa, 1999). A car driven by Martin L. Victor collided with a truck driven by Ronald Swoboda and owned by the Vulcraft Carrier Corp. The accident happened at the intersection of County Road C-38 and U.S. Highway 75. Then the fireworks started.

Victor, acting as his own lawyer, sued the State of Iowa, Plymouth County, Vulcraft and Elwayne Maser in U.S. District Court, apparently alleging (1) that “Iowa law regarding the right to sue private property owners for negligence is unconstitutional;” (2) that Victor should be allowed to sue Maser for acting negligently in failing to trim vegetation that obstructed his view of southbound traffic on U.S. Highway 75; (3) that the State of Iowa and Plymouth County acted negligently by failing to properly maintain a roadway, investigate the accident thoroughly, and place warning signs and markings appropriately; (4) that the highway patrol failed “to perform duties of safety officers, in assessment of dangerous conditions existing;” and (5) that Vulcraft is responsible for its driver’s failure to follow safety standards for commercial trucking. All the defendants moved to dismiss or for summary judgment.

Held: The State of Iowa was dismissed, because the Iowa Tort Claims Act, which gives permission to residents to sue the State, limits those actions to state court. The Court held that the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barred actions in federal courts against States except under narrow exceptions. One of those is that the State have given a waiver and consent that is clear and express that it has waived sovereign immunity and consented to suit against it in federal court. Although a State’s general waiver of sovereign immunity may subject it to suit in state court, it is not enough to waive the immunity guaranteed by the Eleventh Amendment. In order for a state statute or constitutional provision to constitute a waiver of Eleventh Amendment immunity, it must specify the State’s intention to subject itself to suit in federal court, and the ITCA does not do so. Therefore, Victor’s claims against the State of Iowa was dismissed.

It was just your basic accident ... until Mr. Victor made a federal case of it.

It was just your basic accident … until Mr. Victor made a federal case of it.

As for the property owner Maser, the Court ruled that Iowa law put no duty on a private property owner to remove trees which obstructed the view of a highway. Although Victor claimed the Iowa law on the matter unconstitutionally deprived him of the right to sue, he never explained why. The Court observed that “while mindful of its duty to construe pro se complaints liberally, it is not the job of the court to ‘construct arguments or theories for the plaintiff in the absence of any discussion of those issues’… Besides the bare assertion that the Iowa law is unconstitutional, Victor has provided no other discussion of the issue.” Thus, the property owner Maser was dismissed as a defendant.

Victor’s claims that Plymouth County was negligent in failing to install proper warning signs and cut tree branches that obstructed his were not dismissed at this point. Section 670.4 of the Iowa Code exempts a municipality such as Plymouth County from liability for discretionary functions, if the action is a matter of choice for the acting employee, and — when the challenged conduct does involve an element of judgment — the judgment is of the kind that the discretionary function exception was designed to shield. Here, Plymouth County’s policy directed that employees “may trim branches of trees because the trees may constitute an obstruction to vision of oncoming traffic at an intersection,” thus giving employees discretion in implementation of this policy. Thus, the Court said, “the action (or inaction) of which Victor complains was a matter of choice for the county’s employee.”

However, the Court said, Plymouth County’s policy did not encompass “social, economic, and political considerations” and therefore the discretionary function exception does not apply. Victor could proceed with rebutting the County’s claim that the view was not obstructed.

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