Punitive Damages in Georgia

What are Punitive Damages in a lawsuit?

Punitive damages are only allowed in personal injury lawsuits where there are aggravating circumstances or the defendant’s conduct was especially egregious. The defendant’s actions or conduct must have exhibited “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).

How do you get punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit?

Punitive damages in personal injury cases are treated differently than other damages that may be claimed in a typical injury claim. They must be specifically identified in a filed lawsuit or the claim for such damages is waived. In a routine injury claim, the injured claimant will generally claim compensatory damages, also referred to as tangible or economic injury or loss, and non-economic or intangible damages. Non-economic damages is the category that includes a claim for pain and suffering and for emotional distress.

Georgia law does not consider punitive damages as compensation for a plaintiff’s injuries.  Rather, punitive damages are intended to accomplish two goals: first, punish the defendant for his/her outrageous or egregious conduct, and second, serve as a deterrent to the defendant and to others not to engage in similar conduct in the future.

What is the Legal Standard of Proof to establish punitive damages?

There is also a stricter standard of proof for a plaintiff to establish that the defendant’s conduct was so egregious that it warrants an award for punitive damages. To prove all the elements of a negligence claim, the plaintiff must offer proof by a preponderance of the evidence.  A preponderance of the evidence means it is more likely than not that the defendant’s conduct was negligent and that you suffered injuries because of that negligence.

To prove punitive damages, the standard is by clear and convincing proof, which is more than a preponderance of the evidence but not as great as proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

In what cases are punitive damages awarded?

Punitive damages are imposed in product liability cases where a drug or medical device company may have willfully withheld data or test results where it was shown that consumers using the product were exposed to a high risk of physical complications and failed to warn users of the risk.

Other examples of deplorable conduct that could justify a punitive damages award include:

  • Assault with a deadly weapon
  • Robbery
  • Kidnapping
  • Nursing home abuse
  • Sex with a minor
  • Felony assault
  • Drunk driving
  • Drugged driving if an illegal substance was used

Drunk or High Driving Lawsuits

A DUI or drugged driving is considered a sufficiently aggravating circumstance to allow a jury to consider punitive damages. Moore v. Thompson, 255 Ga. 236, 237 (1985).

Punitive damages are only imposed against an active tortfeasor. For instance, in a DUI injury case where an individual, bar, or other commercial establishment is found to have negligently and knowingly served someone under the legal drinking age or someone who was obviously intoxicated and the server was aware that that person would drive and did, the jury can impose punitive damages. Under these circumstances, only the driver as an active tortfeasor may have punitive damages imposed against him. The injured victim, though, can still collect compensatory damages against the bar or restaurant for violation of the state Dram Shop laws.

An injured plaintiff does not have to await the outcome of a criminal prosecution before filing a civil lawsuit that includes a claim for punitive damages. Even if the defendant is found not guilty of a criminal act, such as sexual assault or a DUI, or pleads guilty to some other charge, you can still pursue a claim for punitive damages. There is also a lower standard of proof for the civil case, which is a preponderance of the evidence, and for the punitive damages claim, which is clear and convincing evidence, than the criminal one of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Is there a Cap on Punitive Damages?

Georgia law has a cap of $250,000 on punitive damages. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g). There are 3 notable exceptions to this punitive damages cap:

  1. In cases of product liability. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(e)
  2. Where the defendant acted with the specific intent to harm the plaintiff. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f)
  3. Impaired cases where a defendant was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, but not drugs that were legally prescribed; or where the defendant intentionally ingested, consumed, injected, or smoked glue, aerosol, or other toxic vapor to the extent that his/her judgment was substantially impaired. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f)

In a product liability situation where there is no cap on punitive damages, a plaintiff who is able to recover such damages in a product liability case must give 75% of the award to the state, less a proportionate part of litigation costs and reasonable attorney’s fees. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 (e)(2).

Collecting Punitive Damages

If a jury returns a verdict that includes compensatory, non-compensatory damages, and punitive damages, the defendant’s insurance company will pay the entire award and cannot argue that the portion awarding punitive damages is not part of its obligation to pay. The exception to an insurance company paying out for punitive damages is your own car insurance (aka uninsured motorist – UM) where the plaintiff pursues compensation against his own insurer, but there can be no award for punitive damages since UM coverage will only apply to compensatory damages.