Recently, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an opinion in a drunk driving accident which addressed some confusion over what the term “active tortfeasor ” means and whether not only the drunk driver can be liable for punitive damages, but also whether the guy that gave the keys to a known drunk can be liable as well. Two cousins were drinking together and the owner of the car gave the keys to his cousin who 1) had no license 2) had a history of reckless driving and 3) was drunk. The driver hit someone and both cousins got sued.
The language from the punitive damages statute at issue says:
“(f) In a tort case in which the cause of action does not arise from product liability, if it is found that the defendant acted, or failed to act, with the specific intent to cause harm, or that the defendant acted or failed to act while under the influence of alcohol, drugs other than lawfully prescribed drugs administered in accordance with prescription, or any intentionally consumed glue, aerosol, or other toxic vapor to that degree that his or her judgment is substantially impaired, there shall be no limitation regarding the amount which may be awarded as punitive damages against an active tort-feasor but such damages shall not be the liability of any defendant other than an active tort-feasor.”
The defense argued that only the actual drunk driver could be hit with punitive damages not limited by the $250,000 cap that otherwise exists. The plaintiffs argued, no the drunk cousin who gave the keys is also an intoxicated tortfeasor who qualifies under the statute.
The case was tried by the judge and the court concluded that the drunk driver acted with willful misconduct and conscious indifference, prompting the court to award punitive damages. However, the court declined to order the non driver cousin to pay punitive damages, citing OCGA section 51-12-5.1. The plaintiff appealed the ruling arguing that the statute the court relied on did not bar an award of punitive damages.
Under Georgia law, OCGA section 51-12-5.1, a court may award punitive damages in cases where the plaintiff proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed malice, willful misconduct, or wantonness, amounting to a conscious indifference to the care and safety of another. Further, plaintiffs who meet the prerequisites may be entitled to punitive damages against an active tortfeasor, but the damages cannot be the liability of any other defendant. The trial court read the statute to mean that only the drunk driver could be liable for punitive damages.
On appeal, the court found that the statute does not bar an award of punitive damages against the older cousin in this situation. The court reasoned that the statute does not limit the “active tortfeasor” to a drunk driver. In analyzing the statute, the court explained that the statute’s reference to “the defendant” and “an active tortfeasor” does not mean that liability only imputes on one defendant. Further, the court noted that the statute does not define the term “active tortfeasor,” although it made distinctions between defendants who failed to act and those who acted.
Therefore, the question was not whether the cousin was driving under the influence, but rather if his intoxication substantially impaired his judgment and if that judgment was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Although the trial court found that in DUI cases the driver alone is the active tortfeasor, the appellate court explained that there was an issue as to whether the other cousin was drunk too.
The appellate court vacated the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case to decide if the other cousin was drunk and what the damages should be.
Have You Suffered Injuries in a Georgia Drunk Driving Accident?
If you or someone you love has been injured in a Georiga drunk driving accident, contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Christopher Simon, Attorney at Law. The attorneys at our firm focus on providing Georgia injury victims with the top-notch representation they deserve. Our firm has successfully handled countless personal injury cases arising from car and truck accidents, medical malpractice, slip and falls, and defective products. Through our representation, our clients have obtained compensation for their medical expenses, ongoing medical treatment, lost wages and benefits, mental distress, and pain and suffering. Contact our office at 404-259-7635, to schedule a free initial consultation with an attorney at our law firm.