Court of Appeals of IowaDec 21, 2005
710 N.W.2d 545 (Iowa Ct. App. 2005)

No. 5-881 / 05-0750

Filed December 21, 2005

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Fremont County, Timothy O'Grady, Judge.

Donna Carter appeals from a verdict in favor of the defendant, Gary Rowe, on her personal injury claim. AFFIRMED.

Jon H. Johnson of Johnson Law, P.L.C., Sidney, for appellant.

Douglas A. Haag and Janice M. Thomas of Patterson, Lorentzen, Duffield, Timmons, Irish, Becker Ordway, L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellee.

Heard by Vogel, P.J., and Mahan and Zimmer, JJ.

Background Facts and Proceedings.

On November 22, 2001, after enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner with other family members at her parents' home, Donna Carter rode a horse owned by her father, Gary Rowe. While riding the horse, Donna was bucked off and sustained injuries, primarily to her lower back. Carter had previously ridden the horse several times without incident and had watched as her daughter rode the horse earlier in the day.

Carter filed an action against Rowe alleging both reckless and negligent behavior. Following the presentation of evidence, the court proposed to instruct the jury that Carter needed to establish Rowe acted recklessly in order to recover for her injuries. Carter objected to the instructions, which were based on Iowa Code chapter 673 (2001), contending chapter 673 was unconstitutional and in violation of the inalienable rights and equal protection Clauses of the Iowa Constitution. The court overruled the objections. The jury later returned a verdict in favor of Rowe. Carter appeals, arguing the court erred in rejecting her challenge to the constitutionality of chapter 673.

Scope of Review.

Our review is de novo on Carter's constitutional challenges. Des Moines Register Tribune Co. v. Dwyer, 542 N.W.2d 491, 495 (Iowa 1996). Statutes are presumed constitutional and the challenger must show, beyond a reasonable doubt, the statute is unconstitutional and must negate every reasonable basis to support the statute. Johnston v. Veterans' Plaza Auth., 535 N.W.2d 131, 132 (Iowa 1995). Every reasonable doubt will be resolved in favor of constitutionality. See McMahon v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 522 N.W.2d 51, 56-57 (Iowa 1994).

Iowa Code Chapter 673.

Carter asserts that Iowa Code chapter 673, which was adopted in 1997, is unconstitutional. Iowa Code section 673.2 states, in pertinent part, that the owner of the domesticated animal . . . is not liable for the damages, injury or death suffered by a participant . . . resulting from the inherent risks of a domesticated animal activity. This section shall not apply to the extent that the claim for damages, injury, or death is caused by . . . [a]n act committed intentionally [or] recklessly. . . .

Prior to the adoption of this statute, liability for injuries caused by a domesticated animal was based on a simple negligence standard. See Nikolas v. Kirner, 73 N.W.2d 7, 9 (Iowa 1955). Carter maintains the heightened recklessness standard is unconstitutional on two grounds: (1) it violates Iowa's inalienable rights clause and (2) it violates Iowa's equal protection clause.

Chapter 673 and Iowa's Inalienable Rights Clause.

The first section of the Iowa Constitution's declaration of rights provides:

All men are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights — among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.

Iowa Const. art. I, § 1. In determining whether the challenged statute violates article I, section 1 of the Iowa Constitution, we must determine (1) whether the right asserted by the plaintiff is protected by this clause, and if so, (2) whether section 673.2 is a reasonable exercise of the state's police power. See Gacke v. Pork Xtra, L.L.C., 684 N.W.2d 168, 176 (Iowa 2004) (citing Steinberg-Baum Co. v. Countryman, 247 Iowa 923, 929-30, 77 N.W.2d 15, 18-19 (1956)).

Thus, we first consider whether Carter's ability to seek recovery for mere negligence, as opposed to the heightened standard of recklessness, is a right protected by article I, section 1 of the Iowa Constitution. In particular, Carter asserts it is a protected "property" right.

We find it significant that, while the statute was enacted in 1997, Carter's cause of action did not accrue until 2001. See 16A C.J.S. Constitutional Law § 260(a) (2005) (stating causes of action which have not yet accrued are not vested and may be abolished). Furthermore, the Supreme Court has stated that a litigant does not have a vested property right in any rule of the common law. Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Envtl. Study Group, Inc., 438 U.S. 59, 88 n. 32, 98 S. Ct. 2620, 2638 n. 32, 57 L. Ed. 2d 595, 621 n. 32 (1978). "The Constitution does not forbid . . . the abolition of old [rights] recognized by the common law, to attain a permissible legislative object. . . ." Id. Finally, chapter 673 does not extinguish Carter's ability to seek recovery of damages sustained in a horse-riding injury, it merely alters the standard of recovery. Accordingly, we conclude the common law right to sue under a negligence standard allegedly violated by the enacting of Iowa Code chapter 673 is not a right that is protected by the Iowa Constitution's inalienable rights clause.

Chapter 673 and the Equal Protection Clause.

Carter additionally maintains chapter 673 violates her equal protection rights. Iowa's Constitution states "[a]ll laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation; the General Assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens." Iowa Const. art. I, § 6. The constitutional inclusion of equal protection of the laws requires that similarly situated persons must receive similar treatment under the law. Kuta v. Newberg, 600 N.W.2d 280, 288 (Iowa 1999). State laws generally are subjected to various levels of scrutiny depending on the classification the laws draw and the kind of right the laws affect. See Sanchez v. State, 692 N.W.2d 812, 817 (Iowa 2005). Because Carter appears to concede this case does not involve a suspect class or a fundamental right, we would apply a rational basis test, if disparate treatment of similarly situated persons were identified. Id. Under rational-basis review, the statute need only be rationally related to a legitimate state interest to survive an equal protection challenge. Id.

The first step of an equal protection analysis is to identify the classes of similarly situated plaintiffs singled out for differential treatment. See Grovihohn v. Virjon, Inc., 643 N.W.2d 200, 204 (Iowa 2002). Carter points to the following classes who allegedly receive differential treatment: (1) persons bitten or attacked by dogs, who may sue in strict liability, see Iowa Code § 351.28; (2) professional providers of domesticated animals who must give written notice of their domesticated animal activities, see Iowa Code § 673.3; and (3) individuals who supply faulty tack or equipment, see Iowa Code § 673.2. We believe Carter misses the mark with these examples. Plaintiffs injured by domesticated animal activities are a "class of plaintiffs uniquely created by the legislature and, as such, are different from personal injury claimants generally." See Grovijohn, 643 N.W.2d at 204 (rejecting claim that Dramshop Act violates equal protection). What is significant is that all individuals who are injured by domesticated animal activity are treated in a like manner; in other words, they may only recover for reckless behavior. We conclude Carter has failed to articulate the class of similarly situated plaintiffs who are allegedly treated differently. Because Carter has not satisfied the first step of an equal protection analysis, we do not address whether the requirements of chapter 673 have a rational relationship to a legitimate government interest.


Carter has failed to prove Iowa Code chapter 673 is unconstitutional and we therefore affirm the district court.