What is Apportionment of Fault in an Accident Case?

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently decided a highly litigious case that arose from a tractor-trailer accident that happened in Treutlen County in June 2015.

A truck driver rear-ended another vehicle, killing the three people in that car. Wrongful death actions were filed in different courts throughout the State of Georgia. At issue in this case was the compensatory damages award stemming from the accident.

What is Apportionment of Fault?

The purpose of Georgia’s apportionment statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33, is to have the jury consider all of the tortfeasors who may be liable to the plaintiff together, so their respective responsibilities for the harm can be determined. The first step in apportioning fault pursuant to the statute is to determine if the plaintiff is to some degree responsible for the injury or damages claimed. If so, a percentage of fault is attributable to that person.

After apportioning the damages to each liable person according to their percentage of fault, any damages award to the plaintiff must be reduced by the percentage of fault attributed to all persons other than the defendant.


The parents of one of the passengers (“the parents”) in the accident, in their individual capacities and as administrators of his estate, filed a complaint in Gordon County in April 2016 against the truck driver, his employer Southern Oil, its insurer (“the defendants”), and others.

The complaint alleged claims for the following:

  • Wrongful death;
  • Negligence;
  • Negligence per se;
  • Negligent hiring, supervision, training, and retention;
  • Reckless/wanton conduct; and
  • Punitive damages.

The victim driver’s estate confessed judgment to the passenger’s parents and requested the trial court enter judgment on the claims against those defendants for $100,000. The trial judge approved this, and before trial, the defendants filed a notice of apportionment of fault to the victim driver and others under the former version of O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33. The parents moved to prohibit any argument on apportionment of fault, contending that the case concerned one, indivisible tortfeasor — Southern Oil and its employee. The defendants responded, arguing that:

  • Apportionment was mandatory under the plain language of the apportionment statute;
  • The action didn’t involve a single tortfeasor because the complaint was brought against a total of nine defendants; and
  • Southern Oil and the truck driver were divisible tortfeasors based upon the parents’ separate and distinct claims of negligence against the truck driver and his employer.

After a hearing, the trial court granted the parents’ motion.

The day before trial, the defendants filed a second motion for apportionment of fault. In this motion, they requested:

  • The jury be allowed to consider apportioning fault to the victim passenger;
  • The trial court reconsider its prior ruling on apportionment; and
  • The jury be allowed to apportion fault to the victim driver.

The trial court denied the motion, and the case proceeded to trial. After the close of evidence, the parents told the judge they’d consent to the jury considering apportionment of fault between the truck driver, the victim driver, and their son (the victim passenger). As a result, the judge instructed the jury to consider apportionment of fault between the three.

The jury awarded $3,002,700 in compensatory damages to the parents and apportioned fault as follows:

  • 80% fault to the truck driver;
  • 15% fault to the victim driver; and
  • 5% fault to the victim passenger.

The jury also awarded $1,800,000 in litigation expenses and $500,000 in punitive damages to the parents.

The parents submitted a proposed judgment to the trial court for the full amount of the verdict, plus prejudgment interest, for a total of approximately $6.9 million, reducing the compensatory damages award by the 5% apportionment finding against their son. The defendants objected to their on numerous grounds, including the exclusion of the 15 % fault finding against the victim driver and the inclusion of Southern’s insurer’s $1,000,000 umbrella policy in the calculation of available policy limits.

In response, the parents recalculated some of the damages, keeping the 5% compensatory damages reduction and the umbrella coverage in its calculations, and submitted another proposed judgment to the trial court. The trial court determined that this was a “single tortfeasor case,” and signed the second proposed judgment order. Southern Oil, the truck driver, and Southern’s insurer appealed that order.

Did the Trial Court Err by Not Reducing the Compensatory Damages Award?

The Court of Appeals said yes. Judge John A. “Trea” Pipkin, III wrote that the relevant version of O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 (b) states, in pertinent part:

Where an action is brought against more than one person for injury to person or property, the trier of fact, … shall … apportion its award of damages among the persons who are liable according to the percentage of fault of each person.

The judge noted that the parties focused much of their briefing on the meaning of the word “brought” within the statute. But the judge said this point may not control the Court’s analysis.

The Georgia Supreme Court, “[b]y its plain language, the phrase at the outset of [former] subsection (b) — [w]here an action is brought against more than one person — limits the application of subsection (b) to an action brought against at least two defendants.” In other words, subsection (b) is applicable in cases where there is more than one named defendant and fault is capable of division; and where subsection (b) applies, the percentage of fault of a nonparty must be considered when apportioning damages to party defendants because a given defendant is liable only for the damages corresponding to the percentage of fault allocated to that defendant.”

Here, no matter which interpretation of the meaning of “brought” the Court of Appeals relied upon—either meaning the filing of the original action, as argued by Southern Oil… or meaning the remaining defendants at the time a case is brought to trial, as argued by the parents—there were numerous named defendants in this lawsuit at all times.

Judge Pipkin explained that despite a pre-trial settlement and a pre-trial grant of summary judgment, all of the party defendants remained named defendants throughout the entirety of the litigation, even through the parents’ trial. As such, this wasn’t a single tortfeasor case, and the trial court was required to follow the apportionment statute. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court with direction that the trial court recalculate the damages owed by Southern Oil. Southern Oil Refinery, LLC v. Jean, 2024 Ga. App. LEXIS 238, 2024 WL 3060170 (Ga. App. June 20, 2024).

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Determining fault in an auto accident case can be complicated, as seen here. Speak to an Atlanta accident attorney Georgia residents trust and turn to for advice. Feel free to contact our experienced Atlanta accident lawyers at Tobin Injury Law.