Does Negligent Driving Justify Punitive Damages In Georgia?
In a personal injury case, the plaintiff only needs to prove that the defendant was negligent. Put another way, if you are injured in a car accident, you do not need to show the other driver was trying to hit you or even driving drunk. All you need to establish is that the driver was negligent–say, by running a red light.
Now, a key exception to this rule is if you want to seek punitive damages. This refers to a category of damages that do not relate to the actual injuries suffered by the plaintiff, such as their medical bills or lost wages. Rather, punitive damages are meant to punish–or “send a message”–to the defendant. Under Georgia law, however, punitive damages are only available when the evidence shows the defendant engaged in “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”
Judge: Truck Driver Took Steps to Avoid Collision Despite Brake Failure
The legal bar for proving punitive damages is admittedly a high one. A recent decision from a federal judge in Atlanta, Dillard v. Smith, shows just how high. In this case, a commercial truck hit a passenger vehicle. The plaintiff, who was in the latter vehicle, sued the driver and owner of the truck. The lawsuit also sought punitive damages.
Both sides agreed the truck driver was negligent. To be more precise, the truck driver was having problems with his brakes. He was traveling at around 55 miles per hour (below the speed limit) and was unable to stop at an intersection. The truck went through a red light and, despite the driver’s efforts to swerve, hit the plaintiff’s car.
Clearly, the defendants were negligent. But the judge overseeing the case said this did not justify an award of punitive damages. The plaintiff argued that such damages were warranted because the truck driver knew that his brakes were having problems yet chose to keep driving the truck. But the defense argued, and the judge agreed, that the truck driver did not first notice any brake problems until just before he reached the intersection. And at that point the brakes were simply “stiff” and the driver believed he could compensate by working them harder.
More to the point, the judge found that the truck driver did not “simply ignore or disregard the braking issue.” The driver was near his intended destination and planned to stop and address the brake issues shortly. Under the circumstances, the court said that was a safer course of action than trying to pull over on the road and obstruct traffic. Again, that did not excuse the driver’s negligence or liability for the plaintiff’s injuries, but it also did not support an additional award of punitive damages.
Speak with a Georgia Personal Injury Attorney Today
Even without punitive damages, accident victims are often entitled to substantial compensation for their physical, mental, and financial losses. An experienced Atlanta car accident lawyer can help you fight for the money you are owed. Contact Shiver Hamilton Campbell today to schedule a free consultation.