In Georgia, it is well established that if you are hit by a drunk driver, you can seek punitive (punishment) damages. One issue that has been hotly debated though is whether you can introduce evidence that the other driver was drunk where the case is proceeding to trial with only the Uninsured Motorist carrier remaining as a viable defendant. Georgia Appellate Courts seems to have finally clarified their answer with a resounding “yes.”
Here is how the situation arises:
1) The at fault driver has consumed alcohol;
2) The at fault driver’s liability insurance pays out their policy limits in exchange for a Georgia limited liability release. See the article on a Georgia Limited Liability Release on our primary website.
3) The next level of insurance is provided by the Uninsured Motorist Insurance Carrier and as the UM, they have no liability for punitive damages;
4) As a lawyer, one strategy is to not seek punitive damages (because any award of punitives would go unpaid as the UM is not responsible for it.)
5) The uninsured motorist carrier files a motion with the Court asking the Judge to keep out any evidence of intoxication as they admit they caused the crash and point out that where there is no issue of punitive damages, the issue of intoxication should not come into evidence.
This new decision by the Court of Appeals holds that where the UM insurance company does not stipulate that they caused the injuries complained of, the facts regarding intoxication can come into evidence in the trial judge’s discretion. This case will drastically change how these UM DUI cases are tried by lawyers who represent people injured by drunk drivers.
In SCHWARTZ v. BRANCHEAU, the Court of Appeals held that even if the at fault driver has already paid their policy limits pursuant to a limited liability release and the only issue is the amount of damages owed by the uninsured motorist insurer, the facts of intoxication come into evidence. The defense argued that they had stipulated to negligence and could never be liable for punitive damages, which is true. The Court ruled that because the uninsured motorist insurance carrier did not stipulate to medical causation of the plaintiff’s injuries, that the evidence of the intoxication and how it made the plaintiff feel was still relevant. The Court relied heavily on Shelter Mut. Ins. Co. v. Bryant, 220 Ga.App. 526 (1996) in reaching its decision. In a difficult to follow leap of logic, the Court distinguished Dees v. Logan, 281 Ga.App. 837, (2006) on the grounds that Dees did address the question of whether intoxication was relevant to the issue of proximate cause.
In summary, this new appellate case is a valuable tool in the Plaintiff’s arsenal and should eliminate some pointless debates with Uninsured Motorist insurers about what is coming into evidence in a DUI injury case in Georgia.