When Does Georgia Law Allow for the Recovery of Punitive Damages in Motor Vehicle Accident Cases?

DrivingIn most negligence cases, a plaintiff’s recovery is generally limited to his or her actual damages, both economic and non-economic. Although these damages typically provide sufficient recovery, Georgia law does allow for the recovery of an additional type of damages, punitive damages, when certain conditions are met. The recovery of punitive damages is, however, narrowly circumscribed under Georgia law, and courts tend to be wary in many instances to even let the question of punitive damages go to a jury. For instance, in a recent decision, Minott v. Merrill, a Georgia federal judge explained how narrowly confined punitive damages are under state law.

Minott arose from a motor vehicle accident on a stretch of Interstate 20 in Morgan County, Georgia. The plaintiff alleges that while he was traveling in the right lane, the defendant’s vehicle struck the rear of his vehicle and thereby caused the plaintiff’s vehicle to spin and eventually settle on the side of the road. The plaintiff did not report any injuries at the scene, and officers who reported to the scene to investigate did not issue any citations at that time. In a report on the accident, an investigating officer noted that the defendant acknowledged that at the time his car hit the plaintiff’s vehicle, he had his cell phone resting on his leg and had snatched at his steering wheel while attempting to prevent the phone from slipping. Following the accident, the plaintiff brought suit, alleging negligence and seeking recovery of damages, including punitive damages. At the conclusion of discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the plaintiff was entitled to recover punitive damages as a matter of law.

Under Georgia law, punitive damages may only be awarded in a tort action if “it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed 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). Neither mere negligence nor gross negligence is sufficient. See Brooks v. Gray, 585 S.E.2d 188, 189 (Ga. Ct. App. 2003). Instead, “[t]here must be circumstances of aggravation or outrage.” Id. Accordingly, “in automobile collision cases, ‘punitive damages are not recoverable [if] the driver . . . simply violated a rule of the road.’” Id. (citation omitted). Instead, to withstand summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages recovery in a car accident case, a plaintiff must point to sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude “that the collision result ‘from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving, such as driving while intoxicated or speeding excessively.’” Id. (citation omitted).

In this case, the district judge found that there was insufficient evidence from which a jury could find there was a “pattern or policy of dangerous driving.” Id.  Indeed, the record showed that the collision resulted from the defendant failing to maintain his lane in an effort to prevent his phone from falling from his lap. Although the defendant’s conduct could very well be considered negligent, it fell far short of the sort of reckless conduct sufficient to support a punitive damages award. Instead, courts have routinely found comparable conduct insufficient. See, e.g., Brooks, 585 S.E.2d at 189-90 (affirming grant of summary judgment on punitive damages claim when record showed that defendant crossed over the centerline into oncoming traffic); Miller v. Crumbley, 548 S.E.2d 657, 659 (Ga. Ct. App. 2001) (affirming grant of summary judgment on issue of punitive damages when the defendant failed to keep a proper lookout and pled guilty to following too closely); Lindsey v. Clinch Cnty. Glass, Inc., 718 S.E.2d 806, 808 (Ga. Ct. App. 2011) (affirming summary judgment on issue of punitive damages because evidence only showed that the defendant was distracted by looking up a number on his cell phone). The recovery of punitive damages instead has been limited to particularly egregious conduct. See, e.g., Langlois v. Wolford, 539 S.E.2d 565, 567-68 (2000) (denying motion for directed verdict on issue of punitive damages because evidence that the negligent driver left the scene of an accident, was intoxicated, and had a history of DUI and other traffic violations was sufficient to support the jury’s punitive damages award). Accordingly, the judge granted the motion for summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages and left the plaintiff’s negligence claim as the sole remaining issue for trial.

Although the availability of punitive damages is limited, there remain circumstances when they may be recovered. Those with viable negligence claims should inquire into whether there is evidence sufficient to support an entitlement to punitive damages, and the assistance of experienced trial counsel can be useful to those undertaking this endeavor. The Atlanta car accident attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have provided zealous representation to many injured Georgia drivers, and they are prepared to help those harmed as a result of possible negligence not only ascertain which types of damages they may be able to recover but also litigate the case from complaint to judgment. Indeed, if you’ve recently been harmed as a result of possible negligence and would like to know more about your legal options, feel free to contact us to schedule a complimentary case consultation.

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