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Georgia Court Denies Punitive Damages in Car Accident Lawsuit

In some car accident cases, the injured party may be able to recover punitive damages for their pain and suffering, in addition to compensatory damages. The Georgia Code sets forth the circumstances under which a plaintiff may be entitled to recover such damages in negligence cases.  According to the statute, there must be clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions exhibited “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”

Based on this provision, the Georgia Supreme Court has concluded that punitive damages cannot be imposed without also finding culpable conduct based upon either a willful or intentional act, or those that show an entire want of care and indifference to consequences. If you have been injured in a car accident and want to know whether you may be entitled to a financial recovery, the best course of action is to consult with an experienced injury attorney from the Atlanta area.

In a recent case, Archer Forestry, LLC et al., v. Dolatowski (Ga. Ct. of App. 2015), the plaintiff was injured in a car accident with Steven Ray Archer, who was driving home from work in his employer’s vehicle at the time. The plaintiff brought a negligence action in which she sought punitive damages against the driver and his employer, Archer Forestry, LLC. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support such a recovery. Furthermore, the defendants claimed that the plaintiff was prohibited from achieving a recovery, due to her own alleged negligent driving. The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and denied the motion for summary judgment.

The defendants appealed, arguing essentially the same notion, that the plaintiff failed to adduce evidence warranting a punitive damages award. They also argued that the driver was not working within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident, and therefore the employer could not be held liable for any resulting injuries. The court of appeals agreed with the defendants and reversed the lower court’s decision. Here, the court found that the driver was heading home from work at the time of the accident and had just taken his son to the dentist. Furthermore, although the plaintiff alleged that Archer was a “distracted driver” at the time of the accident – because he was talking on his cell phone at the time of the crash — the court concluded that the evidence “fell short of providing a basis for an award of punitive damages” under the Georgia statute.

Interestingly enough, the trial court failed to rule on the defendant’s claims, under OCGA Section 51-11-7, that the plaintiff was negligent, thereby prohibiting the court of appeals from reviewing the issue. This issue was remanded back to the trial court for its determination.

Under Georgia law, a court will not impose punitive damages for the mere commission of a tort. As this case illustrates, a recovery in a car accident case is highly dependent on the unique facts and circumstances surrounding the collision. An experienced injury attorney would be able to assess your case with an eye to achieving the maximum recovery under the applicable laws.  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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