Articles Posted in Personal Injury

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.

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A recent op-ed in the New York Times has highlighted a problem trial lawyers and our clients have known for years- major reforms and updated regulation are needed in our nation’s trucking industry. According to this article, more people will die in 2015 from traffic wrecks involving large trucks than in all of the domestic commercial airline crashes over the past 45 years- an alarming statistic, especially when you stop to consider just how much emphasis is placed on airline safety when compared to tractor-trailers and other large trucks.

Congress has consistently resisted tougher restrictions on trucking companies, even in the face of disturbing data- (1) the death toll in truck crashes rose 17 percent from 2009 to 2013; (2) fatalities in truck crashes have risen four years in a row, reaching 3,964 in 2013; and (3) the CDC has estimated the cost of truck and bus crashes to have a $99 billion impact on the economy.

Furthermore, while trucks accounted for less than 10 percent of total miles traveled during 2013, the N.T.S.B. recently reported that they were involved in one in eight of all fatal accidents.

The scope of police authority in interactions with citizens has been a commonly discussed topic in media coverage in recent months. Although at the forefront of the modern discussion, the use of force is not a novel concept in the law. Indeed, law enforcement use of force is among the more commonly litigated issues in both state and federal court, and as many lawyers know, officers have some immunity from suit. This immunity, official immunity, is an affirmative defense, and the scope of the immunity is almost invariably at issue in cases brought against law enforcement. As demonstrated in the Georgia Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Vidal v. Leavell, the scope of official immunity is quite broad under Georgia law, a reality for which potential litigants should be prepared.

The facts at issue in Vidal occurred on April 23, 2011. On that day, the plaintiff in this case was at an IHOP in Buckhead with a friend. Shortly after being seated, the plaintiff noticed that the defendant in this case, an off-duty police officer hired by IHOP to provide security, approached a booth occupied by a group of young women. The plaintiff said she could not hear what words were being exchanged between the officer and the women but that she did see the officer force himself into the booth and push two of the women into the wall. The officer was attempting to arrest the patrons in the booth, and the plaintiff began to videotape the incident because she believed the officer was acting too aggressively. Another officer arrived and apparently engaged the defendant to halt his interaction with the patrons. The plaintiff testified that she touched the officer so that he would realize she was recording him. The officer then slapped the plaintiff, and the video shows that the plaintiff then took retaliatory swings at the officer. While the second officer held her arms back, the officer punched the plaintiff in the head and then threw her to the floor, dragged her to the door, and handcuffed her. The plaintiff was arrested for obstruction and assault. Other patrons at the IHOP videotaped the incident.

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Few cases ever advance far enough to be presented to a jury for consideration. However, when there is a trial, the propriety of interactions between the court, the parties, and the jury are of prime importance. Indeed, the integrity of the judicial process depends on both the court and the parties not unduly influencing the jury’s determination, and even the appearance of a misdeed can lead to a new trial. In a recent decision, Phillips v. Harmon, the Supreme Court of Georgia dealt with such a case of possible misconduct and ordered that there be a new trial held.

The facts underlying this case are incredibly unfortunate. The suit was brought by an infant, by and through his mother, and by the mother herself in an individual capacity. The plaintiffs alleged that as a result of the negligence of the defendants the infant suffered severe oxygen deprivation shortly before his birth. Consequently, the child suffers from  permanent neurological problems, which include spastic quadriplegia, blindness, and an inability to speak. The case eventually progressed to a trial before a jury that returned a verdict for the defendants after a day and a half of deliberations. Following the jury’s verdict, the plaintiffs moved for a new trial, asserting that the trial court erred in both communicating with the jury in the absence of the parties and their attorneys and for not including a spoliation instruction in the jury instructions. Specifically, the trial court had responded to a note from the jury that was sent during deliberations without telling the parties or counsel that there had been a communication. The case was reassigned to a different judge, who denied the motion, and the plaintiff thereafter appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals determined that there needed to be a new trial and vacated the jury verdict. The defendants then appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

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