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Naber v. Naber

Court of Appeals of Iowa

April 17, 2019

CRAIG NABER, Plaintiff-Appellee,
JERALD "JERRY" NABER, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Buchanan County, Joel Dalrymple, Judge.

         Jerald Naber appeals the district court's denial of his motion for new trial in this negligence action. Craig Naber cross-appeals, seeking interest on the jury award to begin on the date of the negligent conduct.

          David L. Riley of Swisher & Cohrt, P.L.C., Waterloo, for appellant.

          Bradley M. Arnold of Kolb Clare & Arnold, P.C., Buffalo Grove, Illinois, for appellee.

          Considered by Vogel, C.J., and Doyle and Mullins, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         Jerald (Jerry) Naber appeals the district court's denial of his motion for new trial following a jury verdict finding him negligent for destruction of a tractor and attachment owned by his brother, Craig Naber. On appeal, Jerry seeks a new trial on the basis of (1) testimonial references to an insurance company, (2) the court's classification of certain witnesses as experts, (3) witness testimony regarding the reasonableness of Jerry's conduct, (4) the court's refusal to permit certain testimony, and (5) the theories of negligence presented to the jury. Craig cross-appeals, arguing interest in the judgment should accrue from the date of loss rather than the date the action commenced.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         The events giving rise to this cause of action occurred on October 19, 2015. The weather that day was dry and windy; there was both a burn ban and red-flag warning[1] in effect. Jerry and Craig both work as farmers. Craig rents farmland from his mother, and Jerry sometimes stores grain in a grain bin on the land Craig rents. Both men tended to their respective farming duties on October 19. Craig and his farmhand, Leslie Stacy, performed maintenance on a combine. As they worked, Jerry arrived to clean out and use the grain bin. Earlier, Craig combined some of his corn crop immediately adjacent to the bin so Jerry could access it. Jerry's son arrived to help him. As the two worked, Jerry's pickup truck was parked over the dry combined corn stalks, which stood roughly one-and-a-half feet tall. The corn stalks ignited, starting a field fire, and Jerry quickly alerted Craig and Stacy to the fire while his son called 911.

         Craig used a tractor and chisel-plow attachment to create a dirt berm along the fire to prevent it from spreading. During this process, the fire reached the tractor multiple times. At one point, Craig noticed his front, right tire was on fire. Around this time, he saw someone, who he believed to be a firefighter, nearby and requested assistance. The individual did not try to put out the fire and instead drove away. Eventually, the field fire was extinguished, but Craig's tractor was destroyed and his chisel plow attachment was damaged.

         In November 2016, Craig brought this negligence action against Jerry. Following a three-day trial in January 2018, a jury found Jerry negligent and awarded Craig $198, 100 in damages. Jerry moved for a new trial, which the district court denied. Craig petitioned for costs associated with the proceedings and moved to amend the judgment to accrue interest from the date of the fire rather than the date the action commenced. The district court ordered the judgment to include costs but denied the motion to amend the judgment. Jerry appeals and Craig cross-appeals. Additional facts will be set forth below as are relevant to the issues raised on appeal.

         II. Standards of Review

         Our standard of review when reviewing a denial of a "motion for new trial depends on the grounds raised in the motion." Winger v. CM Holdings, L.L.C., 881 N.W.2d 433, 445 (Iowa 2016) (quoting Clinton Physical Therapy Servs., P.C. v. John Deere Health Care, Inc., 714 N.W.2d 603, 609 (Iowa 2006)). Because evidentiary rulings are reviewed for an abuse of discretion, we review Jerry's claims the district court's admission of certain evidence warrants a new trial for an abuse of discretion. See Mohammed v. Otoadese, 738 N.W.2d 628, 631 (Iowa 2007) (noting evidentiary rulings are reviewed for an abuse of discretion); Clinton Physical Therapy Servs., P.C., 714 N.W.2d at 609 ("If the motion for a new trial was based on a discretionary ground, we review it for an abuse of discretion." (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). "A court abuses its discretion when its ruling is based on grounds that are unreasonable or untenable." In re Trust No. T-1 of Trimble, 826 N.W.2d 474, 482 (Iowa 2013). The "grounds for a ruling are unreasonable or untenable when they are based on an erroneous application of the law." Id. A new trial is not warranted "unless a different result would have been probable in the absence of misconduct." Loehr v. Mettille, 806 N.W.2d 270, 277 (Iowa 2011).

         We review alleged errors in jury instructions for legal error. See Rivera v. Woodward Res. Ctr., 865 N.W.2d 887, 891 (Iowa 2015). An error in jury instructions does not require reversal unless it resulted in prejudice. See id. at 892. Prejudice occurs when the jury is misled or if the instructions materially misstate the law. See id.

         The award and calculation of prejudgment interest is reviewed for errors at law. See Gosch v. Juelfs, 701 N.W.2d 90, 91 (Iowa 2005). When substantial evidence "support[s] the trial court's decision, we are bound by its fact-finding," but "[w]e are not bound . . . by the trial court's application of legal principles." Id. We strictly construe "Iowa statutes providing for recovery of costs." Hughes v. Burlington N. R.R. Co., 545 N.W.2d 318, 321 (Iowa 1996).

         III. Analysis

         A. Insurance References

         In his first claim of error, Jerry argues references made to insurance throughout the proceedings necessitate a new trial. The district court sustained Jerry's motion in limine prohibiting references to liability insurance stating, "The parties should be precluded from making any reference or discussions in the presence of the jury of any sort relevant to insurance coverage." Additionally, Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.411 prohibits "[e]vidence that a person was or was not insured against liability . . . to prove whether the person acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully." Evidence of insurance coverage is prohibited because: (1) "the evidence is ordinarily irrelevant to any issue in the case," (2) "it tends to influence jurors to bring in a verdict against a defendant on insufficient evidence," and (3) "it causes jurors to bring in a larger verdict than they would if they believed the defendant would be required to pay it." Laguna v. Prouty, 300 N.W.2d 98, 101 (Iowa 1981).

         Craig's counsel purportedly inquired into the jury's experience with insurance claims during voir dire. Because the parties elected to not have jury selection reported, we have no record of the claimed improper questions. Further, there is no record of timely objections by Jerry.[2] Consequently, error was not preserved on any claimed violation during voir dire. See In re F.W.S., 689 N.W.2d 134, 135 (Iowa 2005) ("It is the appellant's duty to provide a record on appeal affirmatively disclosing the alleged error relied upon. The court may not speculate as to what took place or predicate error on such speculation."); see also Meier v. Senecaut, 641 N.W.2d 532, 537 (Iowa 2002) (requiring an issue be "both raised and decided by the district court before we will decide them on appeal").[3]

         Subsequent references to insurance relate to comments made by an expert witness, Steven Hamers. When describing who seeks out his services as an expert witness, Hamers noted he is sometimes retained by insurance carriers. He then identified materials he reviewed during his trial preparation that discussed ways to avoid field fires as produced by Grinnell Mutual Insurance. Hamers explained Grinnell Mutual insures farm equipment and insures many farmers in Iowa. On cross-examination, defense counsel inquired if Hamers considered the information from Grinnell Mutual to come from an authoritative source but did not reference Grinnell Mutual by name. Hamers confirmed counsel intended to reference the Grinnell Mutual material by referring to it by name.[4] Although Grinnell Mutual served as Jerry's insurance provider, no one at trial indicated Grinnell Mutual insured Jerry or indicated Jerry carried liability insurance generally. Simply put, no evidence regarding ...

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