Hit by Someone Driving Under the Influence (DUI)
There are substantial civil penalties to punish the wrongdoer.
Drunk drivers are a hazard on Georgia roads and are responsible for more than 20% of fatal crashes. Most of us know that the criminal justice system metes out some justice in probation and fines but many are unaware that when you are hit by a drunk driver in Georgia, the civil law allows the jury to award punitive damages as well.
Georgia law provides that punitive damages may be awarded in addition to compensatory damages when the person that caused the injury behaved in a way that showed a reckless indifference to the consequences. Punitive damages are awarded to punish and deter reckless behavior. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1
That means that if the person or company that caused a wrongful death in Georgia did so in a fashion that is reckless, then punitive damages may be available in addition to the medical bills, lost wages and human suffering. It is important to know that not every type of bad driving or poor decision making entitles a Plaintiff to seek punitive damages. Below, we will discuss what types of behavior will allow the issue to go to the jury.
Punitive Damages are Only Available Under the Survival Claim in a Wrongful Death Case
As we discuss in more detail in our article, there are two distinct claims that can be brought in a wrongful death case. The first claim is for the “full value of the life of the deceased,” and Georgia Courts have held that punitive damages are not recoverable under this claim. The second claim is the survival claim. Under this claim, punitive damages may be awarded in addition to the medical expenses incurred prior to the death, conscious pain and suffering of the deceased prior to the death, and funeral expenses.
Punitive Damages are Available Against Drunk Drivers in Georgia
It is the law in Georgia that if the at-fault driver was drunk at the time of the collision, the injured party may recover punitive damages. The Court of Appeals explained the logic behind punitive damages in Cheevers v. Clark, 214 Ga.App. 866, 869(4), 449 S.E.2d 528 (1994)
Outrageous and Dangerous Behavior Will Allow Punitive Damages
In Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga.App. 826, 828(2), 435 S.E.2d 54 (1993), the defendant trucking company knew that their drivers sped on a regular basis to make runs on time and in the crash with the plaintiff they struck plaintiff’s vehicle twice and kept pushing. In J.B. Hunt Transport v. Bentley, 207 Ga.App. 250, 255(2), 427 S.E.2d 499 (1992), the driver discovered a major mechanical problem but decided to keep driving for another 20 miles.
Georgia Tractor Trailer Crashes Provide Unique Facts that Allow Punitive Damages
Tractor trailer and trucking crashes in Georgia are unique in a number of respects and the Georgia Appellate Courts seem to allow punitive damages more frequently for even basic rule violations, something they don’t do for standard car crashes in Georgia. The logic behind this, although unspoken, is likely the sense that professional drivers should know the rules better than amateurs and are held to a higher standard of care. In Fowler v. Smith, 237 Ga.App. 841, 516 S.E.2d 845 (1999), the tractor trailer driver violated 49 CFR § 392.22(b) by being stopped in the interstate’s center lane for 35 minutes and did not place the required triangular warning devices behind his vehicles. The Court also noted that the trucker did not turn on his tractor-trailer lights.
Punitive Damages are Not Available for Simple Traffic Violations
Some clients want to know if punitive damages are available in other types of Georgia wrongful death cases where the at-fault driver was violating a rule of the road like speeding or blatantly running a red light. The answer is no. Bradford v. Xerox Corp ., 216 Ga.App. 83, 453 S.E.2d 98 (1994). If the driver is not intoxicated but had been drinking it can affect the value of a Georgia case in the negotiations phase, but will probably not support a punitive damages award. In Coker v. Culter, 208 Ga.App. 651, 431 S.E.2d 443 (1993), the plaintiff was not allowed to ask the jury for punitive damages where the at fault driver was speeding on wet roads, had consumed some alcohol, and behaved like a jerk after the collision.
Unless the Wrongdoer Acted with Intent to Harm, Georgia Punitive Damages are Capped
Georgia law does cap punitive damages at $250,000.00 unless the party acted with specific intent to harm. O.C.G.A. 51-12-5.1. There are certain exceptions but as a general rule this applies.
When trying to decide whether to hire an Atlanta injury lawyer, make sure that your interview the lawyer in person before you make your decision. If punitive damages are involved, grill the lawyer extensively on their strategy for your case.
In catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases, you should also be sure to have an attorney look into where the drunk driver was drinking or was otherwise driving under the influence. Georgia has Dramshop Laws that allow the victim to sue the bar if they served a visibly intoxicated person whom they should have known would soon be driving.