Benn v. Thomas

512 N.W.2d 537 (Iowa 1994)



Under Iowa R. Civ. P. 244(h), an aggrieved party may, on motion, have an adverse verdict or decision vacated and a new trial granted for errors of law occurring in the proceedings only if the errors materially affected the party's substantial rights. When jury instructions contain a material misstatement of the law, the trial court has no discretion to deny a motion for a new trial. The court's review is for correction of errors at law. Iowa R. App. P. 4. The court finds reversible error when the instructions given to the jury, viewed as a whole, fail to convey the applicable law.


Decedent was involved in a motor vehicle accident caused by defendant’s negligence. Decedent suffered a bruised chest and fractured ankle. It was revealed that decedent had a history of coronary disease and insulin-dependent diabetes and was at risk of suffering another heart attack. Just days after the accident, decedent expired. The attending doctor testified that he viewed the accident that the decedent was in and the attendant problems that it caused as the cause of the death. The executor requested an instruction on the eggshell plaintiff rule, which was refused. Such an instruction would have advised the jury that it could have found that the accident aggravated the decedent's heart condition and caused his fatal heart attack. The jury returned a verdict for the executor, but determined defendant's negligence in connection with the accident did not proximately cause the death. Defendant contended that the executor's proposed instruction was inappropriate because it concerned damages, not proximate cause.


Whether the refusal of the trial court to instruct the jury on the "eggshell plaintiff" rule, in lieu of the decedent’s medical condition, is a reversible error.




Had the instructions been given, the jury might have found defendant liable for decedent’s death. The proximate cause instruction failed to adequately convey the existing law that the jury should have applied to this case. The eggshell plaintiff rule rejects the limit of foreseeability ordinarily required in the determination of proximate cause and extends it to the unusual results of personal injuries. Although the eggshell plaintiff rule was incorporated into the damages section of the Iowa Uniform Civil Jury Instructions, the court held that it was equally a rule of proximate cause.

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