When can punitive damages be awarded in a Georgia lawsuit?

Georgia Punitive Damages Law

The place to begin when researching punitive damages in Georgia personal injury and wrongful death cases is the plain language of the pertinent statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1. Punitive damages may be awarded in Georgia personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits only when there are "aggravating circumstances." See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(a). Punitive damages are not for deterring a certain type of behavior in society at large, but rather "to penalize, punish, or deter" a particular defendant. Id. This blog post by Lawrenceville, Gwinnett County, Georgia, based personal injury and wrongful death trial attorney Richard Armond gives an overview of punitive damages law in Georgia. 

What evidentiary standard must be met for a Georgia jury to award punitive damages?

Clear and convincing evidence. This is a higher standard than is required for a jury to find a defendant liable for general and special damages. The typical civil standard is "preponderance of the evidence," which is a simple balancing test where if the evidence is slightly greater than 50% against a defendant then that defendant can be held liable. 

Punitive damages, however, "may be awarded only in such tort actions in which 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." See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b).

Clear and convincing evidence is defined as "evidence that will cause the jury to firmly believe each essential element of the claim to a high degree of probability. Proof by clear and convincing evidence requires a level of proof greater than a preponderance of the evidence (but less than beyond a reasonable doubt). See Georgia Suggested Pattern Jury Instruction # 02.040, Fifth Edition.

Are there punitive damage caps depending on the type of Georgia personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit?

Yes.

Product Liability Cases:

In product liability cases there is no limit or cap to the amount of punitive damages which can be awarded under Georgia law. However, punitive damages can only assessed one time against a particular defendant anywhere in the State of Georgia. Further, 75% of the punitive damages awarded go to the State of Georgia, less a proportionate part of the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney's fees. See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(e).

A major reason for this is the policy behind punitive damages. Georgia laws states that punitive damages are awarded "not as compensation to a plaintiff but solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant." O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(c).

Specific Intent to Harm Cases and Cases where the Defendant was Drunk or High:

In cases where it is shown that the defendant specifically intended to do harm (example: an assault with a baseball bat) to the plaintiff, or that the defendant was negligent 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," no cap exists in Georgia on punitive damages. See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f).

Further, no requirement exists under Georgia law in specific intent to harm/drunk and high cases in which the punitive damages get divided between the state and the plaintiff as is the case with products liability cases. See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f).

Finally, punitive damages in specific intent to harm cases can only be awarded against an active tortfeaser (example: a bar knowingly serves a person too much alcohol and lets him drive drunk...only the drunk driver can have punitive damages awarded against him even if the bar is liable for its negligence under dram shop laws for general and special damages). See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f).

All other Georgia Tort Cases:

The vast majority of Georgia personal injury and wrongful death cases, however, will unfortunately fall under the catch-call category of all other Georgia tort cases not listed above. For those cases punitive damages are capped under Georgia law at $250,000. See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g).

Conclusion:

If you or a loved one are the victim in a Georgia personal injury or wrongful death case, punitive damages are something that should be explored. The complaint (the lawsuit you file) must specifically pray for the award of punitive damages or else you cannot pursue them at trial. See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(d)(1). An experienced attorney is needed to handle cases with potential punitive damages so that this potential source of recovery is handled properly.

If your or a loved one have been injured or lost in a personal injury or wrongful death case in Georgia, please contact Gwinnett County based personal injury and wrongful death lawyer Richard Armond at (678) 661-9585 for a free consultation. 

Attorney Richard Armond of The Armond Firm, LLC, handles serious personal injury and wrongful death cases throughout metro Atlanta and the State of Georgia. He is licensed to practice law by the State Bar of Georgia and is based in Lawrenceville, one mile down the road from the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. Call him today for a free consultation at (678) 661-9585. The information above is for informational purposes only as of the date of publication and should not be relied upon as legal advice, nor does the reading of it form an attorney-client relationship. Always consult directly with an attorney for legal advice.