If you have been injured in a car accident caused by another driver’s reckless or negligent behavior in Georgia, you may be entitled to recover damages for your injuries and losses. In addition to compensatory damages (such as pain and suffering, medical expenses, and lost wages), you may also be able to seek punitive damages. Punitive damages are an additional monetary award intended to punish the defendant for particularly outrageous or malicious conduct.
But what exactly are punitive damages, and how are they measured and valued in a Georgia car accident claim? In this blog post, we will provide an overview of these damages and discuss some of the factors that may be considered in determining whether to award punitive damages, and in setting the amount of such damages, under Georgia law.
With offices in Tyrone, GA and Griffin, GA, The Jewkes Firm personal injury attorneys can advise you on every aspect of your injury claim.
What are Punitive Damages Under Georgia Law?
Under Georgia law, punitive damages, also known as “exemplary damages,” are damages that are awarded in addition to compensatory damages in a civil lawsuit and are intended to punish the defendant for particularly egregious conduct. The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff for their injuries or losses, but rather to deter the defendant and others from engaging in similar conduct in the future.
The legal definition is that the defendant’s actions or conduct must rise to the level of “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b).
Punitive damages are not available in every personal injury case in Georgia and are typically reserved for cases involving particularly outrageous or malicious conduct. For example, in a car accident case, punitive damages may be available if the defendant was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or if the defendant was driving at an extremely high speed and showed a reckless disregard for the safety of others. Typically, use of a cell phone while driving – without more – does not justify an award of punitive damages.
In order to recover punitive damages in Georgia, the plaintiff must typically prove that the defendant’s conduct was willful, wanton, or reckless, and that the defendant acted with conscious disregard for the safety of others. This can be a high burden to meet and may require the plaintiff to present strong evidence of the defendant’s misconduct.
How are Punitive Damages Measured and Valued Under Georgia Law?
The amount of punitive damages that may be awarded in a Georgia car accident case will depend on a variety of factors, including the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct, the impact of the conduct on the plaintiff, and the defendant’s financial resources.
Under Georgia law, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 sets out the factors that a court must consider in determining whether to award punitive damages, and in setting the amount of such damages. These factors include:
- The reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct: The more reprehensible the defendant’s conduct, the more likely it is that a court will award punitive damages, and the higher the damages are likely to be. Factors that may be considered in determining the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct include the severity of the harm caused, the defendant’s motive or intent, and whether the defendant showed a reckless disregard for the safety of others.
- The impact of the conduct on the plaintiff: The greater the harm suffered by the plaintiff, the more likely it is that a court will award punitive damages, and the higher the damages are likely to be. The plaintiff may be able to present evidence of the physical, emotional, and financial impact of the defendant’s conduct, including medical bills, lost wages, and other out-of-pocket expenses.
- The relationship between the reprehensibility of the conduct and the harm to the plaintiff: In some cases, the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct may be more significant than the actual harm suffered by the plaintiff.
- The wealth of the defendant: In a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff can discover and present evidence of the wealth of the defendant, including the defendant’s bank account, property holdings, vehicles, and other assets. The wealthier the defendant, the more likely the higher the punitive damages will be.
Is there a Limit on How Much Punitive Damages May be Awarded?
The Georgia Constitution caps or limits punitive damages to $250,000, except in three types of cases:
1. Product liability. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(e)
2. Where the defendant acted with specific intent to harm the injured party. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f).
3. Where the defendant was driving while under the influence (DUI) or driving while under medications that were not legally prescribed. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f).
Therefore, if a jury awards punitive damages in excess of $250,000 the award will be reduced to $250,000, unless one of the three (3) exceptions above applies.
Examples of Cases Where Punitive Damages were Allowed
Here are a few real, legal cases where courts have allowed punitive damages:
- In the case of Langlois v. Wolford, 246 Ga. App. 209 (539 SE2d 565) (2000), the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s denial of summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages in a car accident case. The defendant had argued that there was no evidence of reckless or wanton conduct, but the court found that there were genuine disputes of material fact on this issue, and that the question should be left for the jury to decide.
- In the case of Little v. McClure, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120681 (2014), the United States District Court of the Middle District of Georgia denied a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages where there was evidence the defendant driver was talking on his cell phone while attempting to navigate a dangerous intersection, and because he was oblivious to plaintiff’s vehicle, and the defendant dragged plaintiff’s vehicle before stopping. The appellate court found that there were genuine disputes of material fact on this issue, and that the question should be left for the jury to decide.
- In the case of Reid v. Morris, 309 Ga. 230 (845 SE2d 590) (2020), the Georgia Supreme Court determined punitive damages were available against more than just DUI drivers; they were available against any defendant who was intoxicated so that his or her judgment was impaired. This case originated out of a trial court decision in the State Court of Spalding County, Georgia.
- In the case of Moore v. Thompson, 255 Ga. 236, 336 SE2d 749 (1985), the Georgia Supreme Court determined punitive damages are warranted where the driver was drunk when the accident occurred and also had plead guilty to DUI twice before the wreck and twice after the wreck.
It is worth noting that in each of these cases, the court found that there were genuine disputes of material fact as to whether the defendant’s conduct was sufficiently reckless egregious to justify an award of punitive damages.
What is the Burden of Proof for Punitive Damages in Georgia?
In Georgia, the burden of proof for punitive damages is higher than the burden of proof for typical compensatory damages, like pain and suffering and medical bills. Georgia requires that you prove punitive damages with “clear and convincing evidence,” per O.C.G.A. 51-12-5.1.
The “clear and convincing evidence” standard of proof is a higher standard than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which is the standard that is typically used in civil cases. Under the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, the party seeking to prove a particular fact or claim must present evidence that is highly and substantially more probable to be true than not. In other words, the evidence must be sufficient to establish that the fact or claim is highly probable or reasonably certain to be true.
This means that the burden of proof, i.e., or the evidence necessary to convince a jury, is greater than just a “preponderance of evidence.” However, it is a lower standard than beyond reasonable “doubt.”
Are Punitive Damages Supported by Basic Traffic Citations?
Finally, in Georgia, punitive damages are generally not available in cases involving simple negligence (as opposed to reckless or wanton conduct) or negligence per se. Simple negligence is usually defined as a simple breaking of the rules, such as failing to obey traffic signals, failing to maintain lanes, or failing to yield. Most normal traffic citations fall in the simple negligence or negligence per se category. However, if the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious, reckless, or wanton (such as by ignoring posted speed limits and warning signs), and particularly if there was a pattern of reckless behavior in the past, it may be possible to argue that punitive damages are warranted.