The Iowa Court Of Appeals Reminds You To Prove Causation

There’s a question that sometimes seems to be overlooked in civil cases — How did the defendant’s supposed wrongdoing harm you?  You have to prove not only that the defendant violated some aspect of the law, but also that the defendant’s violation caused you injuries and damages.  That’s generally referred to as “causation.”  The standards for causation vary from one type of claim to another, but the basic principle is always that you must prove you were harmed by the defendant’s conduct or you have no claim.  The principle applies to a personal injury suit, products liability claim, motor vehicle accident claim, motorcycle accident claim, dog bite claim, employment or labor law claim, construction defect claim, business practices or contract law claim, debt collection practices law claim, nuisance law claim, or insurance law claim.

This is not an issue to be taken lightly.  Money damages do not automatically flow from a determination that a defendant violated the law.  If Point A is the defendant’s liability and Point C is your injuries and damages, you need to have a good argument for Point B, which is causation, or the connection between the defendant’s liability and your injuries and damages.

The Iowa Court of Appeals’s recent decision in Stutzman v. West Des Moines OB/GYN illustrates this concept in tragic fashion.  Stutzman was a wrongful death case involving Julie Stutzman’s death from cancer.  Her estate and surviving family claimed that her doctor committed malpractice in the manner in which the doctor handled some of Julie’s earlier doctor visits.  The plaintiffs argued that, had Julie’s doctor properly handled and responded to earlier communications from Julie, Julie’s cancer would have been detected sooner and she would have had a higher chance of survival.

The Stutzman plaintiffs lost because they could only prove one aspect of malpractice against Julie’s doctor and clinic — A charting error.  But they were unable to establish that the charting error made a difference in the course of Julie’s subsequent cancer diagnosis and death, i.e., causation.  So Stutzman is a recent, good example of the importance of having sufficient proof of causation to connect the defendant’s wrongdoing to your harm.  Even though Julie’s family proved that her doctor did something wrong, they could mot prove that the doctor’s error harmed Julie, and they lost their case.

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The Impact Of Your Social Media Use On Your Legal Rights

Your social media posts are not private.  Nor is there any law that prevents a lawsuit opponent from using against you something you posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of countless internet websites and blogs.  If you’re involved in a personal injury suit, products liability claim, motor vehicle accident claim, motorcycle accident claim, dog bite claim, employment or labor law claim, construction defect claim, business practices or contract law claim, debt collection practices law claim, nuisance law claim or insurance law claim, that information could compromise your case.

It is routine for opposing counsel in all types of cases to request this information as part of their pretrial investigation.  They want to know if you’ve posted anything anywhere online that contradicts any part of your claim.  They also want to know if there are any photos or videos of you doing things that you shouldn’t be doing or claim that you can’t do.

Judges increasingly allow opposing counsel access to this information, even if you’ve marked it as private in your online profile or settings.  To judges, your online musings, pictures, and video are as much fair game in a lawsuit as would be a diary, journal, scrapbook with photos, etc.  So odds are good opposing counsel will get this information whether you like it or not.

And that only covers opposing counsel’s attempts to come in through the front door.  As long as opposing counsel doesn’t communicate directly with you, they’re also free to view anything that you’ve left publicly available.  So opposing counsel may be poking around your internet persona and you won’t even know it until it’s too late.

The moral of the story is to avoid putting anything online that your common sense tells you will be used against you by opposing counsel.  Chances are good counsel will eventually get that information somehow.  And they’re guaranteed to try to use it.

Iowa Supreme Court Rules That You Can Get Away With Falsifying Evidence If You Make It Look Like An Innocent Mistake

Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Loehr v. Mettille, in which the court was confronted with a falsification of evidence issue.

Although Loehr was a construction defect and debt collection practices case. its lessons about altering evidence also apply to a personal injury or wrongful death suit, products liability claim, motor vehicle accident claim, dog bite claim, employment or labor law claim, business practices or contract law claim, nuisance law claim, or insurance law claim.  One of the questions raised in front of the jury was the extent to which the parties had spoken about the particulars of their arrangement.  The defendant’s telephone records were offered as evidence during his jury testimony regarding his discussions with the plaintiffs.

Before the case was submitted to the jury, the plaintiff’s counsel noticed that the telephone record was actually several pages pulled from different records and appeared to be a fabrication.  The plaintiff’s attorney pointed that out during his closing argument, but the jury returned a verdict for the defendant on the plaintiffs’ claims.

The plaintiffs requested a new trial based on the defendant’s submission of fake evidence in front of the jury.  The trial court held a hearing during which the defendant, his officer manager, and his trial attorney testified about the fabricated telephone records.  The defendant conceded that his “telephone records” were not real.  He maintained though that the fabricated evidence was an innocent mistake and not a deliberate fabrication.  The trial court disagreed and ordered a new trial because it concluded that the defendant had intentionally tried to mislead the jury.

On appeal the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the trial court.  It concluded that the fake evidence was the result of carelessness, not dishonesty.  The court also determined that, even if the defendant had intentionally fabricated evidence, the plaintiffs suffered no prejudice and the presentation of their case was not harmed as a result.

I don’t agree with the Iowa Supreme Court on this one.  Sure, it was a close call on whether this evidence was intentionally fabricated, and the trial court could have gone either way in granting a new trial.  But the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the trial court’s ruling seems to contradict two general principles of appellate law.  One is that trial courts’ decisions on those “close calls” should rarely be reversed on appeal and only if the trial court really messed up.  This trial judge’s decision was not so far off-base that reversal was justified.

Another rule is that the trial court is in the best position to view the trial and the witnesses and judge their credibility, unlike the appellate judges who review nothing but a paper transcript and the exhibits.  Therefore trial decisions about witness credibility and the impact of evidence are usually left alone on appeal.  The trial court in Loehr obviously did not find the defendant’s testimony about the false telephone records credible and must have believed that the fake evidence prejudiced the plaintiffs’ case.  The Iowa Supreme Court should have deferred to the trial court’s better vantage point in those regards and left the new trial decision in place.

Illegal Or Unlawful Debt Collection Practices Or Collection Agencies

Just because you owe someone or something money doesn’t mean that your life has to be ruined.  Debt collectors and collection agencies are strictly regulated by a federal law known as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  The law has many provisions, which can be summarized into several types of debt collection rules or regulations.  The Act prohibits certain types of “abusive and deceptive” conduct when attempting to collect debts, including the following:

  • Hours for phone contact: contacting consumers by telephone outside of the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. local time
  • Failure to cease communication upon request: communicating with consumers in any way (other than litigation) after receiving written notice that said consumer wishes no further communication or refuses to pay the alleged debt, with certain exceptions, including advising that collection efforts are being terminated or that the collector intends to file a lawsuit or pursue other remedies where permitted
  • Causing a telephone to ring or engaging any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously: with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number.
  • Communicating with consumers at their place of employment after having been advised that this is unacceptable or prohibited by the employer
  • Contacting consumer known to be represented by an attorney
  • Communicating with consumer after request for validation: communicating with the consumer or the pursuing collection efforts by the debt collector after receipt of a consumer’s written request for verification of a debt (or for the name and address of the original creditor on a debt) and before the debt collector mails the consumer the requested verification or original creditor’s name and address
  • Misrepresentation or deceit: misrepresenting the debt or using deception to collect the debt, including a debt collector’s misrepresentation that he or she is an attorney or with law enforcement
  • Publishing the consumer’s name or address on a “bad debt” list
  • Seeking unjustified amounts, which would include demanding any amounts not permitted under an applicable contract or as provided under applicable law
  • Threatening arrest or legal action that is either not permitted or not actually contemplated
  • Abusive or profane language used in the course of communication related to the debt
  • Communication with third parties: revealing or discussing the nature of debts with third parties (other than the consumer’s spouse or attorney) or threatening such action
  • Contact by embarrassing media, such as communicating with a consumer regarding a debt by post card, or using any language or symbol, other than the debt collector’s address, on any envelope when communicating with a consumer by use of the mails or by telegram, except that a debt collector may use his business name if such name does not indicate that he is in the debt collection business
  • Reporting false information on a consumer’s credit report or threatening to do so

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act allows you to recover money damages and attorney fees if you prove that a collection agency or debt collector violated the law.  Please contact Erbe Law Firm for a free in-person consultation if you believe that a debt collector or collection agency has violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.