Can a Victim Get Special Damages in a Georgia Auto Accident?
A trucking company filed a lawsuit against Jacqueline Duckworth, alleging that she rear-ended one of its vehicles. Duckworth filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the trucking company failed to present evidence of its special damages.
The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment. The trucking company appealed, arguing that the trial court erred.
What are Special Damages?
Special damages are damages such as automobile damage, loss of earnings now and in the future, and medical expenses. These are damages that can actually be ascertained. In contrast, general damages, which are damages for things like pain, suffering, emotional distress and things along those lines that don’t quite have a set monetary cost.
Background and the Accident
T&T Transportation “transports senior citizens, mentally challenged [people and] DFCS consumers in the State of Georgia for the State of Georgia,” and to do so it owns and leases approximately 90 vehicles.
The parties didn’t dispute that Duckworth rear-ended a truck driven by an employee of T&T after she stopped in the road to look at another collision. Duckworth received a citation and pled guilty to following the demi too closely.
The trucking company filed its action against Duckworth seeking cost of vehicle repairs, loss of use of the vehicle, and diminished value. During discovery, Shawn Thomas, T&T’s chief executive officer, testified that he did not know when the company purchased the semi at issue or how much they paid for it. When asked if he knew the fair market value of the vehicle at the time of the collision, the CEO responded: “Not offhand, I wouldn’t know.”
Duckworth filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case. She argued that the trucking company failed to show an issue of material fact as to its claimed property damages. In response, T&T filed repair orders for the big rig and the bill for the replacement. They also submitted an affidavit from the CEO that provided the value of the vehicle prior to and following the collision, along with the costs of the 18-wheeler’s repairs and loss of use.
The trial court granted Duckworth’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the undisputed evidence showed that T&T didn’t demonstrate facts sufficient to prove the essential elements of its case for property damage to an automobile.
The Court of Appeals Opinion
Judge Amanda H. Mercier of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote that recovery for property damage to an automobile is “an item of special damages,” citing a 1999 Georgia Supreme Court decision. Further, state statute § 51-12-2 (b). says that “[s]pecial damages are those which actually flow from a tortious act; they must be proved in order to be recovered.”
After Duckworth pointed to the absence of evidence supporting the trucking company’s claim for special damages, T&T was required to proffer evidence of the damages. Judge Mercier noted the following from an earlier case:
When a plaintiff seeks recovery for damages to an automobile, he may claim the reasonable value of repairs made necessary by the collision, together with hire on the vehicle while rendered incapable of use, and the value of any permanent impairment, provided the aggregate amount of these items does not exceed the fair market value of the automobile before the injury. In the alternative, plaintiff may prove the difference in fair market value of the property before the injury and afterwards.
As a result, under either calculation, a plaintiff must provide evidence showing the market value of the plaintiff’s vehicle immediately before the collision, the judge wrote.
Here, the trucking company’s CEO said that he determined the value of the [vehicle] immediately prior to the accident to be $14,425. T&T also submitted repair orders and the bills for the rental vehicle. With that, Judge Mercier held that the trucking company’s proffer of evidence of the special damages was sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact and allow the case to move forward.
T&T’s CEO didn’t testify in his deposition that he didn’t know the value of the vehicle when the collision occurred, or that the value of the vehicle was some amount other than $14,425. Instead, when asked if he knew the vehicle’s value at the time of the collision, he replied, “Not offhand, I wouldn’t know.” As such, the CEO didn’t contradict his earlier testimony that he did not know the value of the vehicle at the time of the accident “offhand,” by later being able to provide the value. Therefore, the Court of Appeals couldn’t say that one part of his testimony asserts or expresses the opposite of another part of his testimony. Because the CEO’s statements were not necessarily inconsistent, the Georgia Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Prophecy Corp. v. Charles Rossignol, Inc. was inapplicable. That decision held that when that party relies exclusively on that testimony in opposition to summary judgment, a court must construe the contradictory testimony against him.
Thus, by putting forth the CEO’s allegation regarding the value of the vehicle, along with repair orders and the bills for the rental vehicle, Judge Mercier found that T&T proffered evidence of its special damages. While Duckworth may dispute the damages, the dispute is an issue for the jury.
The judgment was reversed. T&T Transportation v. Duckworth, 864 S.E.2d 181 (Ga. App. October 18, 2021).
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