Two kindergartners walked away from their elementary school in Waterloo, Iowa and were on-the-loose for 45 minutes before being recaptured. The youngsters high tailed it from Kittrell Elementary School just after lunch and made it as far as downtown. Oh my, the poor substitute teacher. She'll never be the same.

In this instance the children were not harmed, which is lucky for all involved. Had something happened the parents would undoubtedly be upset with the teacher and the school district. The principal would be upset with the teacher and the system. The school board would hear it from the parents and in turn would chew out the principal and the teacher.

But really who is at fault for setting up a system that allows this kind of mishap to occur and to increase the risk of injury or even death to kindergartners? In any law suit filed there would be plenty of finger pointing.

  • Principal towards substitute teacher.
  • Parents towards school system, principal, school board and the substitute teacher.
  • School board towards the principal and the teacher.
  • And then all of the above pointing at the voters.

Defense lawyers love to have a full defense table at a trial.  You probably wonder why, well it has to do with how the jury system works. The defense lawyers would demand trial by jury, no question in my mind on that issue. They need a jury of citizens whom they can confuse with a convoluted presentation of evidence and issues to create confusion in the minds or jurors who they hope will simply throw up their hands in an exasperated way and say "the issue is too complicated, confusing" and then turn and blame the plaintiff for even bringing the case. The subliminal message is pretty simple: We are all to blame and blaming one person or the system is unfair.

And that's how the defense wins many cases, by creating confusion and getting the jury to take their eye off the ball. Then the defense steals the case from grieving parents, but not before they pronounce to the jury "how sorry we are for the plaintiffs' loss, but that no one is to blame!"

And that's what this defense business is about. It's about feigning compassion at just the right time and in just the right amount that common people in a limited time period of a trial don't figure out that right after the closing argument the defense lawyer will head off to shoot nine holes and forget what they just did; which is cheat grieving parents of justice.

You see, as the judges tell me, justice isn't about fairness, it's about the law. And the new thinking from the bench is to forget about the people involved and to focus on the words of the Code of Iowa. Because between those words it's easier to forget about the humans involved and the losses they have suffered. Sort of like my favorite client Jerrica.

She remains lost somewhere in time, space and in words, but never from my heart.

Who was Jerrica? Read the dissenting opinion and then ask yourself whether or not this human life was worth nothing to the parents. If you answer no then accept that your life may also be worthless to those that loved you.


No. 06-0173. [6-1022] PHELAN-RUDEN v. SUDDRETH
Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Michael D. Huppert, Judge. AFFIRMED. Considered by Zimmer, P.J., and Miller and Baker, JJ. Opinion by Miller, J. Baker, J. dissents. (11 pages $5.50)

Plaintiffs Teri Phelan-Ruden in her capacity as the executor of the estate of Jerrica Anne Hilleman-Ruden, and Phelan-Ruden and Jeff Ruden individually, appeal from the district court’s denial of their motion for additur or a new trial. They assert the district court abused its discretion in denying their motion, because the damages awarded by the jury are inadequate, are inconsistent, are a product of jury nullification, and fail to award the minimum value for a life set forth in Iowa Code section 910.3B (2003). They also assert the district court erred when it refused to submit a jury instruction on pre-death pain and suffering. OPINION HOLDS: New Trial. After reviewing the record, including the instructions submitted to the jury, we must agree with the district court that there was evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude the plaintiffs had failed to prove an entitlement to damages for either a net value of Jerrica’s past and future lost services, or a present value of her estate. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ motion. Pre-Death Pain and Suffering Instruction. The plaintiffs have waived any error on this issue. Moreover, the district court had no duty to give the instruction in light of the uncontroverted evidence that Jerrica’s death was instantaneous with her injuries. DISSENT ASSERTS: I do not believe that under our decisions we can accept the premise that the life of a healthy eleven-year-old child, regardless of her family background, has no value. I therefore dissent from the majority’s holding that there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude the plaintiffs failed to prove an entitlement to damages for the present value of Jerrica’s estate.


I rest my case, but I will never give up on the notion that life has value or that justice includes an element of fairness. It is a cold heart, a dead heart, that believes otherwise.

Steve Lombardi
Iowa personal injury, workers' compensation, motorcycle, quadriplegic, paraplegic, brain injury, death
2 Comments
Twelve years have passed, and I assure you my young Jerrica is not turning in her grave. As I age I come to realize more and more just how far people will go to defend a wrong. I did not tell anyone that it was about money, Jourdan was not there the night that Jerrica cut her foot at our home and there was no need for us to lie about anything. We accepted what the courts handed us and we picked up what pieces we had left of our life and began the journey of trying to find a way to build a life in this "Jerrica's gone" life. It hasn't been easy and it took time to be able to forgive all of the "misinformation" that was given by a family that I unfortunately thought my daughter would be safe with. In twelve years I've not bashed anyone to the media nor have I used any of my time healing to condemn the defendants; not because I don't believe that the actions and decisions that ended my daughters life were, in fact, completed with no regard to her health and welfare. The reason is she did no wrong, we wanted the person who was found responsible (according to the courts) for Jerrica's death to know what she did, to admit the wrong and to take responsibility for the life that ended before it had begun really. As you can see by that above message, and I have known by the emails, facebook posts and whispers...even 12 years later...that while I will continue to heal, and you Steve did get us the piece of the puzzle that we needed the very most - her being found responsible ... the story can't end there, it will never be allowed to. Thank you for posting the kindnesses that you did about Jerrica, it does my heart good to know that she has her own little fan club in you and in a way she touched you as she did so many others. Thanks for all you continue to do for people life my family, that seek justice and come to find out that you will do more than that, you will leave them with a sense of peace that is so very important in beginning to heal.
by Teri Phelan-Ruden April 5, 2014 at 12:17 AM
I went online today, the 12th anniversary of her death, to search for a photo of Jerrica. Instead I found this rubbish.. I was there on that horrible february day. I saw my best friends last moments and the decisions that led to them. Jerrica was a beautiful, amazing, loving individual with a heart of gold. It is abundantly clear is life was not worthless, in fact, NO amount of money could replace the hole she left in our hearts. I am glad I have the luxury of KNOWING the situation and exactly what happened, rather than having to wonder if one side is bending the truth (or in some cases, outright lying) for the sake of money. I was there when Jerrica and I, excitedly told all our friends about our upcoming trip, including the possibility of skiing if it wasnt too snowy and cold. I was there when she cut her foot on ice not long before the trip and was worried about not being able to go. I was there when she told me her mom called the doctor and said skiing was ok. I was there when we started our day on the slopes among several other children our age who were simply dropped off by parents at the gate. I was there when her and I begged to go out one more time before switching mountains and my mother agreed, telling us to go down specific runs. I was there when she decided to go down the blue hill with me. I was there when she flipped over the flimsy fence and I had to climb down to her lifeless body. I saw my best friend die that day because of an innocent decision of an 11 year old girl. Because of a series of unpredictable, unfortunate events and a God damn boulder at the bottom of a ski slope. I watched as medics performed CPR, I sobbed, begging God for her to just be ok. I followed the ambulance and arrived at the hospital in a blur of chaos and watched as my mother had to make the most horrible call of her life. They asked if we wanted to say goodbye. I remember her lying there on the hospital bed, covered in down from the coat that had been cut from her. We came home to a beautiful service, full of tears and love. Her mother hugging mine and everyone recounting her room brightening smile. I remember the day my mother told me she vwas being sued. I remember being pulled from school so you couldnt serve me with an order to appear in front of my friends. I remember Teri telling my mother it was only about the money. Then the lies came. Trying to make it seem like my mother was negligent so the jury would award them money for their child. To say they decided her life was worthless is so beyond off base. To liken our horrible situation to a teacher losing children half Jerricas age is appalling. To go back and lie to a jury, saying she didnt have permission to join us skiing, for the sake of money, is nothing short of pathetic. Don't forget. I was there Mr. Lombardi. You put my family through hell when our hearts had already been torn out. I can assure you, Jerrica would turn in her grave to know the deceit and nastiness that was performed in her name.
by Jourdan February 8, 2014 at 11:14 PM
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