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'I gave her a kiss and said goodbye': Iowa man files lawsuit after losing his wife in a hit-and-run crash

James Bergert says he's concerned proposed legislation would prevent his lawsuit from the full justice he believes he deserves.

DES MOINES, Iowa — James Bergert says his late wife Joanna Rizzo never met a stranger.

"She could walk into a room and it would light up," said Bergert.

The couple was married for ten years and shared a love for each other and their four-legged companions. 

"When we got married, we moved into the house and all six dogs got along like they lived together for their entire life. I mean, it was just so perfect."

On Aug. 4, 2021, the couple was driving home to Williams from a dog class in Des Moines. According to court documents, the pair were driving on I-35 in Hamilton County when a tow truck driven by Anthony Nessa, of Tony's Tire Services, failed to yield to the couple.

"I knew we hit something or something hit us. And I started asking Joanna if she was okay. 'Are you okay?'"

But when the car came to a stop, James says Joanna was no longer next to him.

"And I got out and looked in. She was laid back in the seat with her head kind of behind me. And it was gone from the nose up."

Knowing he'd lost his love, he said goodbye.

"I gave her a kiss and said goodbye and kissed her on the hand and got out and took care of the dog."

Months later he says he's still haunted by what he experienced.

"I wake up at night, in bed with a cold sweat with nightmares. I see her in a state that she was in the car when I last seen her. Something I wish nobody would have to go through."

James filed a lawsuit last week against the towing company. But now he's concerned about legislation Iowa lawmakers are considering. It would cap damages in commercial vehicle lawsuits at one million dollars per plaintiff.

"The legislature wants to take that decision away from Iowa juries, the men and women are comprise Iowa juries," said James's attorney Erik Luthens. 

These non-economic damages would mean money for injuries like pain, suffering, and emotional distress. 

"That doesn't mean that someone's going to get a million dollars," said Luthens. "But that that is the arbitrary figure that they have put on us. So then insurance companies know regardless of how badly our drivers act, whatever they do, their exposure is going to be limited."

"Nothing is going to bring her back," Bergert said. "But people need to be able to stand up against corporations and say, my life is no longer what it was. And I ought to be able to be compensated for it."

The lawsuit alleges Nessa also fled the scene and asked an employee to claim responsibility. The employee initially told officers he was responsible, until learning the crash involved a death. The employee then recanted his story. Local 5 News reached out to Tony's Tire Service, but did not receive a response. 

A spokesperson for the Iowa House GOP sent Local 5 a statement on the proposal lawmakers made last week.

“The trucking industry is essential to our state’s success and Iowans’ quality of life. So this session, legislation was introduced to protect this industry from abusive lawsuits. The bill still allows Iowans injured in an accident to be compensated fairly, but aims to limit abusive lawsuits that make it harder to do business in Iowa.” - Melissa Deatsch, Iowa House Republicans 

The amendment that would cap damages failed on the House floor last week. Lawmakers deferred a vote on the full bill it was being attached to. This means a second vote on the amendment is still possible before the end of session.

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