Elderly Iowa Driver Not Liable for Accident Caused by Stroke

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Sudden emergency doctrine, negligence, stroke.

Hagenow v. Schmidt. Iowa negligence, sudden emergency, stroke

On November 10, 2008, Betty Schmidt, age 75, was driving home from grocery shopping headed east on University Avenue in Cedar Falls, IA. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, the weather was clear, and the roads were dry. She prepared to make a right turn on Cedar Heights Drive, and moved into the right turn lane. She saw the red light, but she didn't see Dennis Hagenow's truck stopped in the right turn lane. She plowed into the pickup, and her car got lodged underneath.

Her airbag deployed, and the truck was later deemed to be totalled. She was given and passed a breathalyzer test, and a police officer cited her for failing to stop at a clear distance.

She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she realized that she was unable to see a person talking to her. She was given a CT scan and diagnosed with left homonymous hemianopsia, the lack of vision in the left side of each eye. This is a result of brain damage. A neurologist concluded that she had suffered a stroke, but it was unclear whether this had happened before or after the accident.

She remained hospitalized at Sartori Hospital for eight days, at which time she was transferred to Covenant Hospital for rehabilitation. Her doctor at Covenant opined that the strike took place while driving.

Hagenow and his wife subsequently filed a lawsuit against Schmidt alleging negligence. As her defense, she asserted that the accident was caused by an act of God, namely, the unexpected medical emergency.

Both sides filed motions for summary judgment, but both were denied. Instead, the case went to trial.

The trial judge in Black Hawk County instructed the jury that a driver who, through no fault of her own, is placed in a sudden emergency, is not chargeable with negligence if she uses the care which a reasonably careful person would have exercised under those circumstances.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant, that she had not been negligent. The plaintiffs moved for a new trial, but this was denied. Therefore, the plaintiffs appealed. The Iowa Court of Appeals reversed, and held that the trial judge had erred in giving the instruction about sudden medical emergency. The defendant then took the case to the Iowa Supreme Court, asking them to reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstate the original verdict.

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge and reinstated the verdict. It found that the "sudden emergency" instruction was properly given. The medical evidence supported the opinion that the stroke took place prior to the accident, that she lost half her vision, and failed to realize that she had suffered a stroke.

The Supreme Court was sympathetic to the plaintiff's argument that the jury instruction was not worded as well as it could have been, and spent some considerable time discussing the exact wording of the instruction. But overall, it concluded that any error was harmless under the circumstances of the case.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court vacated the court of appeals and affirmed the original verdict in favor of Ms. Schmidt.

No. 12-1192 (Iowa Feb. 7, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

For more information about attorney Clem, please visit his website.
For more information about his low-cost CLE programs, please visit his CLE page.
Return to index of case summaries

Copyright 2014, Richard P. Clem.
Attorney Richard P. Clem is responsible for the content of this page.

Richard P. Clem, Attorney
PO Box 14957
Minneapolis, MN 55414
Phone: +1-612-378-7751
e-mail: clem.law@usa.net
Minnesota Attorney Registration Number 0192648

Books by Richard Clem:

Please visit my author page at amazon.com

Copyright and privacy notice.