from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Paul D. Scott,
Doherty appeals the district court decision granting a new
trial based on an erroneously given jury instruction.
Stephen E. Doohen of Whitfield & Eddy, PLC, Des Moines,
J. Toenjes of Nelson & Toenjes, Shell Rock, for appellee.
by Tabor, P.J., and Mullins and Bower, JJ.
Doherty appeals an order for new trial granted to Rebecca
Coffin following a jury verdict finding Doherty was not at
fault for an automobile accident. The district court granted
a new trial, finding it had committed reversible error by
submitting an instruction on the legal excuse of sudden
emergency. Reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable
to Doherty, we find the instruction was not supported by the
evidence. We affirm the district court's order for a new
Background Facts & Proceedings
April 18, 2014, a four-vehicle automobile accident occurred
on Interstate 35 near Ankeny. The front vehicle, driven by
Coffin, was braking and slowing to a stop after noticing
emergency lights and some brake lights ahead. Coffin saw a
vehicle approaching from behind very quickly as she applied
her brakes. She was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by
Rebecca Ruther, went into a spin, and then was clipped by a
vehicle driven by Cody Dobson. Doherty was driving immediately
behind Ruther and veered to the left but hit the back end of
question of fact of who struck first went to the jury-whether
the vehicle driven by Doherty struck Ruther before or after
Ruther's vehicle hit Coffin. Coffin makes no claim
Doherty's vehicle hit her vehicle directly. Doherty
testified she swerved toward the median after seeing
Ruther's vehicle strike Coffin and come to a "dead
stop" with no brake lights visible until after the
collision. Doherty "clipped" Ruther as she swerved.
Doherty testified she did not swerve farther left because she
was afraid of rolling her vehicle on the slope of the median.
vehicle sustained only cosmetic damage to the front passenger
side. Ruther's vehicle sustained significant front driver
side damage and rear bumper damage. Coffin's vehicle
sustained damage to the rear bumper, undercarriage, and rear
door, with additional damage to the front bumper.
Dobson's vehicle sustained minor damage, but was
was issued a citation for violation of Iowa Code section
321.285 (2014), failure to stop in assured clear distance.
She appeared and pleaded guilty to the citation on May 5,
2014. Doherty's insurance carrier informed Coffin via
letters dated April 28 and June 5, 2014, that their
investigation indicated Ruther was the party at fault for
April 5, 2016, Coffin filed suit against Doherty, alleging
Doherty was negligent in causing the accident and the
negligence caused injuries and damages. Instructions
regarding legal excuse and sudden emergency were among the
directions provided to the jury following a two-day trial.
The jury returned a unanimous verdict finding Doherty was not
at fault. On April 12, the court entered judgment in
favor of Doherty and dismissed the case.
April 26, Coffin filed a motion for new trial, claiming the
court should not have included jury instructions relating to
legal excuse, sudden emergency, and other grounds. The court
heard arguments on July 7, and on August 7 entered a written
order granting the motion for new trial. The court stated
"A stop in traffic is not an uncommon or unforeseen
event on the traveled roadway and, therefore, is not a sudden
emergency," finding it was an error of law under
Beyer v. Todd, 601 N.W.2d 35 (Iowa 1999), to ...