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Serious Injury by Motor Vehicle

by David A. Cmelik Law PLC

Where someone drives a motor vehicle in violation of Iowa Code § 321J.2, Iowa’s Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) statute, or in a reckless manner “with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property,” in violation of Iowa Code § 321.277, or by “eluding or attempting to elude a pursuing law enforcement vehicle,” and causes a serious injury he or she commits a Class “D” felony, punishable by fines ranging from $750 to $7500 and a mandatory minimum, indeterminate prison sentence of no more than five years.

A serious injury is defined as:

“a. Disabling mental illness.

b.  Bodily injury which does any of the following:

(1)  Creates a substantial risk of death.

(2)  Causes serious permanent disfigurement.

(3)  Causes protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.

c.  Any injury to a child that requires surgical repair and necessitates the administration of general anesthesia.” Iowa Code § 702.18

A bodily injury is not explicitly defined in the Iowa Code, but appellate courts in this State have stated that “welts, bruises, or similar markings are not physical injuries per se but may be and frequently are evidence from which the existence of a physical injury can be found.” State v. Gordon, 560 N.W.2d 4, 6 (Iowa 1997)(citing Hildreth v. Iowa Dep't of Human Servs., 550 N.W.2d 157, 160 (Iowa 1996)). Courts in Iowa approve of the model penal code definition of “bodily injury” which requires that “physical pain, illness, or any impairment of physical condition.” Gordon, 560 N.W.2d at 6 (quoting State v. McKee, 312 N.W.2d 907 (Iowa 1981)).

But we can’t stop with whether or not someone was merely charged or even guilty of operating while intoxicated and whether or not someone sustained a serious injury. In other words, the connection isn’t automatic. Intoxication must be the proximate cause of the serious injury and there may be no sole intervening causes for same. As Courts in Iowa have summarized:

“A defendant may be criminally responsible for a victim's death if the defendant's conduct is a proximate cause of the death.  State v. Shortridge, 555 N.W.2d 843, 845 (Iowa Ct. App. 1996). A defendant may be relieved of criminal responsibility if an intervening act breaks the chain of causal connection between the defendant's actions and the victim's death.  State v. Garcia, 616 N.W.2d 594, 596 (Iowa 2000). However, for an intervening act to relieve a defendant of criminal responsibility, the intervening act must be the sole proximate cause of death.” State v. Begey, No. 02-0200, 2003 Iowa App. LEXIS 326, at *6-7 (Ct. App. Apr. 4, 2003)(unpublished).

“An act is a cause of an event if two conditions are satisfied: the event would not have occurred without the act; [and] the act made the event more likely. The first condition is necessary to distinguish the attempted from the completed crime, the second to rule out cases in which, while the event in question would not have occurred but for the act, the act did not create the kind of dangerous condition that would make such events more likely to occur.” State v. Garcia, 616 N.W.2d 594, 596-97 (Iowa 2000).

The Iowa Supreme Court has in the last five years spoken to this issue, however, noting that:

“However, in our most recent discussion of causation principles in a criminal case, we clarified that when ‘causation does surface as an issue in a criminal case, our law normally requires us to consider if the criminal act was a factual cause of the harm.’ State v. Tribble, 790 N.W.2d 121, 126-27 (Iowa 2010). Except where multiple acts contribute to cause a consequence, the determination of factual causation turns simply on whether ‘the harm would not have occurred absent the [defendant's] conduct.’ Id. at 127 (quoting Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm § 26, at 346 (2010)). Our review of this case leads us to conclude that this is just such a ‘normal’ case in which ‘our law . . . requires us to consider if the criminal act was a factual cause of the harm.’ Id. at 126-27. As our decision in this case makes clear, the causation question in a prosecution under Iowa Code section 707.6A(1) asks whether the victim's death would have occurred in the absence of the defendant's criminal act—intoxicated driving.” State v. Adams, 810 N.W.2d 365, 372 (Iowa 2012).

“Put another way the statute demands more than mere proof that the defendant's driving caused the death of another person. A defendant may be found guilty of homicide by vehicle only if the jury finds beyond a reasonable doubt that his criminal act of driving under the influence of alcohol caused the victim's death.

Adams, 810 N.W.2d at 371.

Causation in a serious injury by motor vehicle case is a complex issue. It requires an understanding of the issues by a legal professional to assess the need for further scientific expertise to determine factual, or, proximate causation. 


If you or a loved one has been arrested for serious injury by motor vehicle, or, serious injury by OWI, recklessness, or eluding, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC at 319-389-1889 and let us help you find your best options and help you chart your course through legal crisis. 


However, remember a blog is not legal advice and sending unsolicited information to an attorney over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship. 

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Serious Matter. Drunk driving (OWI), sometimes known as DUI in states other than Iowa, along with a serious injury is a felony offense here. Serious injury is a legal term of art that applies the law to the facts to typically determine whether an injury creates a disabling mental illness, substantial risk of death, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss of impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ. Factual causation of the injuries may require medical expertise and accident reconstruction. Let us help you chart your way back to life before legal crisis. Contact us at 319-389-1889.

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