Drainage Districts Defend Tort Immunity At State's High Court

Sep 14, 2016

The City of Des Moines’s water utility is trying to sue 10 drainage districts in northwest Iowa in federal court, accusing the districts of polluting the Raccoon River. But first, Des Moines Water Works must convince the state Supreme Court that drainage districts can be held liable.

The drainage districts assert that for over a century, the Iowa Supreme Court has held that they can’t be sued for a civil wrong due to their limited authority. Attorney Michael Reck told the court during oral arguments Wednesday that it should stand by its previous rulings.

“A drainage district could not be subject to money judgment and tort under any state of facts. That’s what this court told us,” says Reck. “This is not some offhand comment that was made once in the 75th page of some ruling.”

Recks adds that if the legislature disagreed with the high court's previous rulings, it would have created laws that overrode decisions that gave immunity to the districts. 

Des Moines Water Works says nitrate runoff from Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac Counties is costing millions of dollars to make water safe for drinking. The utility asserts that the drainage districts’ tort protection is antiquated.

“The court has historically recognized that human health has become a more important interest for the court to protect overtime than it was at the time that the court was developing drainage district immunity in the early 20th century,” says Water Works attorney John Lande.

If Water Works is successful at the state Supreme Court, it may end up seeking millions of dollars in damages in the federal lawsuit, slated for June 2017. Regardless of how the Iowa Supreme Court justices rule, the Water Works still plans to petition for more federal oversight.