In Georgia, if a bar, restaurant or other business that serves liquor over-serves a customer and that customer gets into their car and kills someone, the establishment can be held liable for punitive damages. If there was any doubt, the Supreme Court of Georgia reaffirmed in a unanimous decision, this in a recent decision. In other words, someone (i.e., a bar, restaurant, etc.) who helped cause a drunk-driving accident but was not the actual DUI driver, could still be liable for uncapped punitive damages as an “active tortfeasor” in the wreck.
To be sure that the ruling is not limited to a certain set of facts, the case that the Georgia Supreme decided involved a man who had been drinking and loaned his car to his friend who he had been drinking with. So, the punitive damages liability would apply to individuals and businesses alike. This broad case ruling changes the landscape on liability in these situations. Someone who serves somebody — a restaurant, bartender, or even a private host holding a party– who serves someone who is obviously too drunk to drive is subject to punitive damages. In the case decided by the Court, the one defendant asked his friend to drive his car and give him the keys to it, even though his friend was obviously too drunk to drive and he knew it. The friend, as it turns out, did not have a valid driver’s license and the court determined he had a habit of recklessness. Of course, his friend drove drunk and caused a wreck while DUI. In a situation like this, it is common for the DUI driver to be sued for negligence and the person who gave him the car to be sued for negligent entrustment, which is what happened in this case. Both were found liable for the injuries caused by the DUI driver who caused the wreck. The trial judge found that both defendants (the DUI driver and his friend who loaned him the car while knowing he was drunk) “acted in a manner that showed willful misconduct, malice, wantonness, and that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” Normally, this would give rise to punitive damages liability, but the trial judge, while awarding punitive damages agains the driver, would not award them agains the friend who had been found guilty of negligent entrustment.
In reversing the trial court, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that there is no limit to punitive damages in cases where the defendant is found to have acted or failed to act with the specific intent to cause harm and that, pursuant to Georgia law amended in 1997, a defendant under the influence of alcohol or drugs “to the degree that his or her judgment is substantially impaired” could be subjected to unlimited punitive damages as an active tortfeasor.” This couple with the ruling that the party guilty of negligent entrustment was an active tortfeasor was the impetus for the Court to hold that the negligent entrustor was liable for punitive damages, as well as the DUI driver.