Iowa Supreme Court Finds Gross Negligence Not Always an Intentional Act

The Iowa Supreme Court cleared the way for a federal lawsuit against an amusement park to proceed, reversing a district court ruling that a ride operator’s fatal actions were so reckless that they amounted to an intentional act.

If Stephen Paul Booher’s death was intentional, no coverage would be owed under a commercial general liability policy issued by T.H.E. Insurance Co. because coverage is triggered only by accidents.

The Supreme Court, in a decision Thursday, found that the ride operator’s actions might fall between “the rocks of immunity” established by state statute and ” the shoals of a coverage defense” under the terms of the policy.

“At this early stage of the proceeding, based on the broad nature of the pleadings, we cannot say there is no possibility that Booher may not be able to convince a factfinder that he has a claim that amounts to gross negligence but is within the scope of the coverage of the CGL policy,” the court said in a 6-0 decision.

Booher, 68 at the time of his death, was a retired postal carrier who worked a seasonal job at Adventureland Park in Altoona, Iowa. On June 7, 2016 he and a coworker were helping visitors take their seats in rafts that were carried by a conveyor belt through the Raging River attraction.

Ride operator Stuart R. Glen turned the ride on before Booher and the other loading attendant were ready. The ride jerked to a start, causing Booher to fall into a vortex between one of the rafts and the sidewall. His head was slammed repeatedly against the concrete.

Glen was supposed to have waited for both loading attendants to signal with thumbs up before starting the ride, according to a lawsuit filed by his widow Gladys on behalf of Booher’s estate. He was also supposed to stop the machine at the first sign of any accident. Instead he ignored the large red stop button on his control panel and left his station on a platform above the ride, returning to it only after park visitors yelled at him to turn the machine off, the lawsuit says.

Many state workers’ compensation laws bar lawsuits by employees against their co-workers, but Iowa Section 85.20(2) allows such lawsuits if gross negligence is alleged.

Booher’s widow argued that her husband’s death was covered by Adventureland’s liability policy, but T.H.E. denied the claim because it didn’t consider the incident a covered “occurence,” because Booher’s death wasn’t an accident. The lawsuit in federal district court was set aside while the parties sought a declaration from the state court as to whether there was any coverage under the policy.

The Supreme Court opinion sets out the parameters within which T.H.E.’s duty to indemnify Adventureland applies. Ordinary negligence claims are not allowed against employers, but gross negligence lawsuits are allowed. To find gross negligence, there must be knowledge that injury is probable, not just possible.

On the other hand, case law has established that insurers have no duty to cover actions when injury is expected or intended, the Supreme Court said. According to the opinion, knowledge that injury is probable does not necessarily mean that the injury was intentional.

“It is possible that a factfinder could find that a coemployee acted without intent to harm and with the expectation that an injury was more likely than not, but not with the expectation that the injury was highly likely or substantially certain to result,” the court said.