What Are Punitive Damages in a Georgia Accident Claim?

What Are Punitive Damages?
January 31, 2019

If you’ve ever seen headlines about someone getting hurt in Georgia and walking away with millions of dollars, you might wonder: how could any accident ever add up to that much money?

Well, the truth is that some accidents do add up to millions of dollars in direct damages. Medical bills, lost wages, property damage, and the cost of ongoing care can reach substantial sums when the accident is serious.

But in some cases, those kinds of losses only make up part of the plaintiff’s total financial recovery. He or she might also receive something called punitive damages. In Georgia, punitive damages can typically go up to $250,000 — but in some cases, they can add up to millions of dollars on their own.

There’s a lot to know about punitive damages. They aren’t available in every case. Even when they are available, they aren’t necessarily handed over easily. Several limitations apply.

Still, in some cases, punitive damages can represent a substantial source of financial recovery for accident victims in Georgia.

While we can’t cover every aspect of the law in this article, we will walk you through a basic overview of punitive damages. We’ll also explain how an experienced Augusta personal injury attorney may be able to help you seek punitive damages as part of your accident claim (a drunk driving injury case, for example, or product liability, etc.).

What Are Punitive Damages?

In a personal injury claim, the accident victim’s injuries and losses (that is, the things they can be compensated for) are collectively referred to as “damages.”

Generally speaking, the damages in a Georgia accident claim can be divided into three categories: economic damages, non-economic damages, and punitive damages.

Economic damages are those that have a clear and demonstrable economic value, things like: medical bills, repair costs, lost wages due to work absences, future medical care costs, funeral expenses, lost financial support, the loss of household services, and so on. These are all things with an easily quantifiable cost, or where there is at least a clear factual basis for estimating those costs.

Non-economic damages are harder to quantify in terms of dollars. They include things like: pain, suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, post-traumatic stress, loss of consortium, or loss of love and affection. While these damages are compensable and usually do get translated into a specific dollar amount, doing so can require a greater level of research and valuation. Indeed, one of our roles as Augusta personal injury attorneys is to argue for maximizing compensation for our clients’ non-economic damages, whenever appropriate.

Punitive damages are different. Whereas economic and non-economic damages are both intended to compensate the victim for a loss or injury they have suffered, punitive damages are not intended to compensate the victim at all. Rather, they are intended to punish the defendant. (That said, juries are sometimes known to award punitive damages, or increase the amount of punitive damages, because of a desire to give more money to an especially hard-suffering victim or family.)

Even though punitive damages are not compensating the victim for anything, the money gets added on to the other damages (economic and non-economic) that the plaintiff receives. So in some cases, punitive damages can become a sizable part of a Georgia accident victim’s recovery.

When Are Punitive Damages Awarded in Georgia?

Essentially, courts award punitive damages in order to “hit the defendant where it hurts” (i.e. their wallet) and to send a serious message to the public.

Punitive damages are only available in certain kinds of cases, and according to Section 51-12-5.1 of the Georgia Code, are reserved for situations where the defendant’s actions showed:

  • Willful misconduct,
  • Malice,
  • Fraud,
  • Wantonness,
  • Oppression, or
  • Conscious indifference to the safety of others.

For example, a jury might award very large punitive damages in a case where a large corporation flagrantly violated the law and caused terrible injuries to a family — especially if the jury thinks that the corporation won’t take their verdict seriously otherwise.

Ordinary negligence is not enough to support a punitive damages award.

What Is the Law on Punitive Damages in Georgia?

Every state has different laws concerning punitive damages. In Georgia, those laws are complex, consisting of not only statutes but also many years of case law and precedent. For that reason, it is difficult to make broad statements about whether punitive damages are available in any specific legal matter. The detailed facts and circumstances always matter.

One limitation on punitive damages in a Georgia accident claim is the burden of proof. In an ordinary personal injury claim (one seeking only economic and/or non-economic damages), the burden of proof is “a preponderance of the evidence.”

But in a claim for punitive damages, the burden of proof is “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant’s alleged conduct rises to the level of punitive damages (e.g. will, malicious, fraudulent, etc.). That is a somewhat higher standard than “a preponderance of the evidence” — though still not as high as the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal cases.

Another limitation concerning punitive damages in a Georgia accident claim is the cap on punitive damages in our state.

With the exception of intentional tort cases, products liability (defective product) cases, and cases where the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or certain drugs, an accident victim in Georgia cannot be awarded more than $250,000 for punitive damages — even if there are multiple defendants on the line.

Additionally, you cannot recover punitive damages from a city, county, or state government in Georgia (though you may still be able to recover punitive damages in a claim against government employees or contractors individually).

And in most cases, a court will not award punitive damages unless you have suffered at least some economic damages. (In other words, a claim that is based solely on non-economic damages typically will not support a claim for punitive damages.)

Can I Get Punitive Damages in a Georgia Accident Claim?

In some cases, yes.

Most Georgia auto accidents involve only ordinary negligence (e.g. speeding, failing to use a turn signal, running a stop sign, etc.). Generally speaking, such ordinary negligence cannot support a claim for punitive damages, though economic and non-economic damages are still available.

But if you can make a compelling case, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant’s negligence was egregious, malicious, or recklessly indifferent, you may be able to recover up to $250,000 in punitive damages.

If you can show that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs (as set forth in Section 51-12-5.1 of the Georgia Code), the $250,000 cap does not apply. You may then be able to seek unlimited punitive damages (though the court will still require that any award be reasonable; disproportionate or exorbitant awards are typically rejected).

Indeed, most of the auto accident cases in which a plaintiff recovers punitive damages in Georgia involve drunk driving.

Alternatively, if you have a product liability claim against the vehicle manufacturer, or if there is evidence that the defendant acted intentionally, you may be able to seek punitive damages without the $250,000 cap applying.

Don’t Make Assumptions About Punitive Damages in a Georgia Accident Claim

By now, it is probably clear that the laws on punitive damages in a Georgia accident claim are complex.

The best way to find out whether you have a claim for punitive damages (and whether any limitations or exceptions apply to that claim) is to talk one on one with an experienced Augusta personal injury attorney.

Schedule a Free Consultation with M. Austin Jackson Attorney at Law

When you set up a free case review with M. Austin Jackson Attorney at Law, you can talk with one of our experienced Augusta personal injury attorneys at no cost and with no obligations. Consultations are available in person or over the phone.

If you choose to hire us, you won’t have to pay us anything unless and until we get you money. Our fee will only be a portion of your total recovery.

Time limits apply to personal injury claims in Georgia, however, so please don’t delay. Give us a call at (706) 724-2661.

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