Punitive Damages at Trial in Wrongful Death Cases

Punitive damages in Georgia are governed by statute- O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1.  Under the provisions of this law, punitive damages (i.e., damages designed to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant’s conduct) are to be awarded only in injury or death cases when the plaintiff can show by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”  In layman’s terms, that means punitive damages are warranted in a road wreck case if there is some particularly extraordinary fact- for example, the defendant was cited for DUI or fleeing the scene of an accident with injuries.  Unfortunately, we come across these types of facts often in a car wreck or trucking wreck case where a fatality is involved.

 

Things can get slightly complicated, however, when it comes time to try these types of cases in front of a jury.  In general, most cases involving punitive damages have to bifurcated into two separate phases.  First, the jury has to decide issues of compensatory damages and whether punitive damages are warranted.  Then, in the second phase, the jury would decide the amount of punitive damages to be awarded.  See Webster v. Boyett, 269 Ga. 191.  However, if the trial court determines that the introduction of punitive evidence in the first phase of the case might also inflame the jury on issues of liability and compensatory damages, then a trifurcated trial procedure is allowed.  Id.  Under the 3 step approach, the first phase resolves issues of fault, causation, and compensatory damages.  Phase two would then consider whether punitive damages are proper, and then the final phase would include the jury’s consideration as to the amount of punitive damages.

 

In general, the three step approach leads to a more disjointed trial and is unusually only seen in extremely complicated cases.  Most plaintiffs’ lawyers prefer the bifurcated procedure as it allows them to introduce the punitive elements of the case from the very beginning, but the trial courts have wide discretion on this issue.  Above all else, though, it is important to have a skilled and experienced trial lawyer on your side when dealing with these kinds of complicated legal issues in a wrongful death case.

 

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