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Georgia Court Upholds Award of Punitive Damages in Car Accident Lawsuit

car crashUnder Georgia law, a person who has been injured in a car accident may be entitled to collect compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory relief covers an injured party’s pain, suffering, and losses. By contrast, punitive damages are typically awarded under “aggravating circumstances” and are intended to penalize, punish, or deter a defendant. But not every personal injury case warrants an award of punitive damages. If you have been injured in a car accident, you are encouraged to seek the assistance of an experienced Atlanta injury attorney who will work to maximize your opportunity for relief.

In order to recover punitive damages, a plaintiff is required to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, or oppression, among other things. It is important to understand which conduct justifies an award of punitive damages and which doesn’t. Courts are typically called upon to interpret the “proven” circumstances of a car accident case in light of the local law. In a recent Georgia case, Dagne v. Schroeder (Ga. Ct. of App. 2016), the court upheld a jury verdict and judgment awarding a plaintiff compensatory and punitive damages following a car accident involving the parties.

Here, the plaintiff was driving her daughter home from school when the defendant – driving on the opposite side of the road – crashed into her. Witnesses testified to observing that the defendant was driving erratically, continuously slowing down and speeding up prior to the crash. The defendant struck the plaintiff’s vehicle, sending her van airborne, and it tumbled several times before coming to a stop upside down. A witness called 911 and reported that a drunk driver caused the accident. The plaintiff and her daughter were taken to the hospital for treatment.

The plaintiff brought an action against the defendant for medical expenses and pain and suffering. She also sought punitive damages based on allegations that the defendant was impaired at the time of the accident. A trial was held in two phases. The defendant moved for a directed verdict (or partial summary judgment) on the issue of punitive damages, which the court denied. After the first phase, a jury awarded the plaintiff $150,000 in compensatory damages, and it concluded that the defendant was also liable for punitive damages. At the second phase of the trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $100,000 in punitive damages, even though it found that the defendant was not impaired at the time of the accident.

The defendant appealed the decision, raising several arguments, including that the trial court erred in denying her motion for a directed verdict on the issue of punitive damages, since there had been no evidence that she was under the influence at the time of the collision. The court of appeals found no error in the lower court’s denial of a directed verdict. Despite the fact that the jury concluded that the defendant was not impaired at the time of the accident, the court found that there were other grounds on which a jury could have awarded punitive damages. For instance, the court pointed out that the defendant’s erratic driving raised a jury question as to whether her conduct exhibited willful misconduct, malice, wantonness, or an entire want of care to raise a presumption of conscious indifference to the consequences.

Here, even though there was no evidence that the defendant was driving under the influence at the time of the accident, the jury still found her to have exhibited behavior warranting an award of punitive damages. Each case is unique and rests upon the individual facts at hand. After a car accident, parties are encouraged to seek the assistance of an experienced injury attorney to assess the options for pursuing compensation. Stephen M. Ozcomert is an injury lawyer with over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of another’s negligence in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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