A Decorah attorney involved in a record-breaking personal injury award in Howard County is hoping it wakes up insurance company executives in the state of Iowa.
The jury recently awarded nearly $1.6 million to Kelsey Bronner of Cresco, who was injured in a one-vehicle rollover accident April 30, 2008, while a passenger in a vehicle owned and insured by Reicks Farms Inc. of Cresco.
The lawsuit maintained the vehicle was negligently maintained and operated.
Bronner was represented by Nick Rowley, a partner at Trial Lawyers for Justice, a law firm headquartered in Decorah that also has offices in California. Other firm members, Rowley’s wife, Courtney Rowley, and Dominic Pechota, also were involved in trying the case. Rod Ritner, another attorney with Trial Lawyers, helped with jury selection.
Rowley said he believes the award is more than the attorney representing the Reicks’ insurance company, who offered a $220,0000 settlement when the trial date was set, expected.
“This was jaw dropping for the insurance company. I think it will have the impact of making insurance companies think a little harder about how they treat people in Iowa … insurance companies might start to value their losses a little better than they currently are,” he said.
Brian Yung of Sioux City represented Reicks Farms and Reicks’ insurance company, the IMT Group – IMT Insurance & Wadena Insurance of West Des Moines. Attempts to reach Yung and IMT Group for comment about the verdict were unsuccessful.
Bronner, who was 15 at the time, had her right ear torn off during the accident, according to Rowley. She also suffered permanent disfigurment and nerve damage to the right side of her face, in addition to a broken nose and cheek bone. Her medical bills totaled $59,189.
A claims representative went to the Bronner home every month for two years, but refused to pay the medical bills, Rowley said.
Rowley, as a member of the Iowa Association for Justice, hopes to change the Iowa law that prevents jurors from realizing accident victims are actually suing insurance companies for their damages.
He said in Wisconsin and in some instances in Minnesota, insurance companies are identified as defendants.
“If we go on the other side of the Mississippi, the jury knows the truth,” Rowley said.
But in Iowa, juries see two families pitted against each other, he said.
“The community is led to believe these two families are suing each other, but the insurance companies are making all the decisions and the insurance companies have all the control because they’re betting on Iowans, who are good people, being misled to believe that a farm is going to go down because of this big lawsuit,” Rowley said.
“Iowa Association of Justice is going to move to make it clear, so we have the same law as Wisconsin,” said Rowley, who is speaking at an Iowa Association of Justice conference Nov. 9. Through trialbyhuman.com, Rowley said he also would be involved in upcoming seminars in Decorah and Okoboji to educate attorneys on the topic and on having the “courage” to take cases to trial.
“There just aren’t a lot of cases tried in the state of Iowa. I think the consensus is more need to get tried,” Rowley said.
Rowley asked for $10 million in damages and is a “bit disappointed” with the $1,559,189 award. At the start of the trial, Rowley requested a jury instruction that would have told the jury not to consider how any verdict would be paid. However, trial Judge Margaret Lingreen of Postville wouldn’t allow that instruction. Rowley said Lingreen, “one of the best judges in the state,” didn’t think she could allow the instruction under Iowa law.
“I asked for that instruction not to let the sympathy factor affect them and lower what the real damages in the case were for a girl with permanent nerve damage to her face, but that jury instruction isn’t standard in Iowa,” Rowley said.
After the trial, the attorney spoke to jurors who said they didn’t want to award the larger verdict requested because they were afraid it would bankrupt Reicks Farms.
Rowley said his client was forced to file the lawsuit after Reicks’ insurance company, the same company the Bronner family paid to insure their vehicle and farm for the past 20 years, failed to pay her medical bills.
“I’ve seen more cases go to trial because of a frivolous defense (from an insurance company). I haven’t seen a frivolous lawsuit go to trial,” Rowley said.
“There’s no bad blood on the part of the Bronner family. They understand this was an accident and never wanted to file a lawsuit to begin with. The only reason it was filed was insurance company greed,” Rowley said.
The company’s $220,000 settlement offer before the trial started just added “insult to injury,” the attorney said.
“A 15-year-old girl had her face deformed. Kids laughed and teased her. Her face will droop more and more the rest of her life. She’s had five reconstructive surgeries and has nerve palsy,” Rowley said.
With the verdict, Rowley said the Bronners have closure.
“The jury had good, caring people. They made a good decision. I just personally think it should have been more but I’m biased and a bleeding heart,” Rowley said.
The damages awarded by the jury included past medical expenses $59,189, past physical and mental pain and suffering and disfigurement, $90,909; past loss of full mind and body, $90,909; future physical and mental pain and suffering and disfigurement, $659,090; and future loss of full mind and body, $659,090.
Why have insurance?
Iowans have insurance for two reasons – to protect themselves and to protect and compensate the people they hurt, Rowley said.
“It’s time for insurance companies to do what’s right by their policy holders. The insurance company didn’t (in the Bronner case),” Rowley said.
Anyone who represents injured people in the state knows this is the norm, he said.
“Insurance companies in Iowa have concluded they can get away with it. Insurance companies have it cushy here,” he said
But Rowley said his firm is committed to making sure insurance companies meet their obligations.
Rowley, 38, said he’s won more than $500 million in jury verdicts and completed 116 jury trials. He’s also been involved in more than $1 billion in settlements.
“Never once have I taken a single penny from an individual. It’s always an insurance company,” he said.
Rowley said he has eight jury trials scheduled in Iowa in the next year for personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death cases – all involving insurance companies.
He said other Iowa lawyers are noticing how companies are treating Iowans and want justice.
“I think a fire has been lit,” he said.