State of Iowa Immune From Suit After Storm Lake Boating Death

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: IA sovereign immunity, discretionary function exception.

Estate of David Paul McFarlin v. State of Iowa. IA sovereign immunity, discretionary function exception

Ten-year-old David McFarlin was killed in a boating accident on Storm Lake, in Buena Vista County, Iowa, on May 31, 2010. The boat struck a pipe that was part of a dredge operation, and the force of the collision broke the motor loose. It landed in the passenger compartment and struck David. He died later that day.

The driver of the boat testified that he saw two dredges and believed they were working independently. He stated that he was confused by the multiple buoys, and thought that he was being directed to pass where the pipe was located.

Dredging had been taking place on the lake since 2002 by the Lakeside Improvement Commission (LIC), which was comprised of representatives of the county, the cities of Storm Lake and Lakeview, and a citizen commission, the Lake Preservation Commission. This dredging required a permit from the DNR through the Natural Resources Commission. The dredging equipment is owned by the County, the operators are employees of the City of Storm Lake, and the State reimburses for operating.

David's estate filed suit and claimed that the state was negligent. The state moved for summary judgment on various grounds, including sovereign immunity under the discretionary function exception. The district court, Judge Carl A. Petersen, agreed and dismissed the case. The estate then appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which issued its decision on September 10, 2015.

To avoid liability under this doctrine, the state must show than an employee was exercising discretion, and that the type of discretion was one that the legislature intended to shield from immunity. The court first examined the relevant statutes and determined that there was not a mandatory requirement as to where the pipe and buoys should be placed. Instead, they took a permissive approach and gave the employees a great deal of discretion as to their exact placement.

The appeals court then turned to the question of whether the legislature had intended to shield this kind of discretionary act from liability. Here, the appeals court also concluded that discretionary immunity applied, since the state needed to balance factors supported by social, economic, or political policies.

In addition to the placement of the buoys, the appeals court also looked at the permitting process itself. It concluded that the same factors made the discretionary function exception apply to that state decision.

For these reasons, the appeals court affirmed Judge Petersen's decision.

For a Minnesota case holding the discretionary function inapplicable to a case in which a police officer made a traffic stop by use of hand signals, see Abo El Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

No. 14-1180 (Iowa Ct. App. Sept. 10, 2015).

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).

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