In 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.