One of the many bases for awarding punitive damages in Georgia is a conscience indifference to the welfare of others. I am hard-pressed to think of a more apt example than a hit-and-run driver leaving the scene of a serious accident. Yet, many Georgia lawyers mistakenly believe that hit-and-run conduct does not warrant the imposition of punitive damages.
Georgia law on punitive damages can be found at O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1:
(a) As used in this Code section, the term “punitive damages” is synonymous with the terms “vindictive damages,” “exemplary damages,” and other descriptions of additional damages awarded because of aggravating circumstances in order to penalize, punish, or deter a defendant.
(b) Punitive damages may be awarded only in such tort actions in which it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.
(c) Punitive damages shall be awarded not as compensation to a plaintiff but solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant.
(d) (1) An award of punitive damages must be specifically prayed for in a complaint. In any case in which punitive damages are claimed, the trier of fact shall first resolve from the evidence produced at trial whether an award of punitive damages shall be made. This finding shall be made specially through an appropriate form of verdict, along with the other required findings.
(2) If it is found that punitive damages are to be awarded, the trial shall immediately be recommenced in order to receive such evidence as is relevant to a decision regarding what amount of damages will be sufficient to deter, penalize, or punish the defendant in light of the circumstances of the case. It shall then be the duty of the trier of fact to set the amount to be awarded according to subsection (e), (f), or (g) of this Code section, as applicable.
(e) (1) In a tort case in which the cause of action arises from product liability, there shall be no limitation regarding the amount which may be awarded as punitive damages. Only one award of punitive damages may be recovered in a court in this state from a defendant for any act or omission if the cause of action arises from product liability, regardless of the number of causes of action which may arise from such act or omission.
(2) Seventy-five percent of any amounts awarded under this subsection as punitive damages, less a proportionate part of the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney’s fees, all as determined by the trial judge, shall be paid into the treasury of the state through the Office of the State Treasurer. Upon issuance of judgment in such a case, the state shall have all rights due a judgment creditor until such judgment is satisfied and shall stand on equal footing with the plaintiff of the original case in securing a recovery after payment to the plaintiff of damages awarded other than as punitive damages. A judgment debtor may remit the state’s proportional share of punitive damages to the clerk of the court in which the judgment was rendered. It shall be the duty of the clerk to pay over such amounts to the Office of the State Treasurer within 60 days of receipt from the judgment debtor. This paragraph shall not be construed as making the state a party at interest and the sole right of the state is to the proceeds as provided in this paragraph.
(f) In a tort case in which the cause of action does not arise from product liability, if it is found that the defendant acted, or failed to act, with the specific intent to cause harm, or that the defendant acted or failed to act while under the influence of alcohol, drugs other than lawfully prescribed drugs administered in accordance with prescription, or any intentionally consumed glue, aerosol, or other toxic vapor to that degree that his or her judgment is substantially impaired, there shall be no limitation regarding the amount which may be awarded as punitive damages against an active tort-feasor but such damages shall not be the liability of any defendant other than an active tort-feasor.
(g) For any tort action not provided for by subsection (e) or (f) of this Code section in which the trier of fact has determined that punitive damages are to be awarded, the amount which may be awarded in the case shall be limited to a maximum of $250,000.00.
(h) This Code section shall apply only to causes of action arising on or after April 14, 1997.
A number of well-settled Georgia cases prove that leaving the scene of an accident is conduct that allows the judge or jury to award punitive damages in the right case. Battle v. Kilcrease, 54 Ga.App. 808, 189 S.E. 573 (1936), is a case decided over 70 years ago by the Georgia Court of Appeals. The Battle case essentially stands for the proposition that:
The conduct of a hit and run driver in failing to stop and give his name and render assistance to the person injured, when taken in connection with all the circumstances, may authorize a finding that the driver in causing the injury exhibited an entire want of care and conscious indifference to consequences, and therefore, such “aggravating circumstances in the act” as would authorize a recovery of punitive damages.
More recently in Langlois v. Woldford, 246 Ga. App. 209 (2000), the Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled that: where a person driving along a public highway and overtaking and passing another automobile, attempts to turn in front of the latter automobile and hits the front portion of the latter automobile and turns it over causing a wreck and does not stop to render assistance, the jury may consider the conduct as such aggravating circumstances as would authorize the award of punitive damages to the person injured.
Leaving the scene of an accident was criminalized in Georgia because “the public policy of this state mandates that a party to an accident must stop and render aid to those involved in the collision, no matter who caused the collision, and not leave them in a possibly disabled state without aid.”
That’s definitely good news for car accident lawyers in Atlanta.
Robert J. Fleming has been handling wrongful death cases, dental malpractice, bus accidents, car accident cases and premises injury cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 20 years. He practices in and around the Atlanta area including handling lawsuits in Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Gwinnett, Cobb and other counties and nearby cities including Alpharetta, Austell, Avondale Estates, Chamblee, College Park, Conyers, Duluth, Decatur, Doraville, Hapeville, Johns Creek, Jonesboro, Lawrenceville, Norcross, Peachtree City, Riverdale, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Stone Mountain, and Smyrna. If you have been seriously injured in a car accident and would like quality legal representation, contact Robert J. Fleming directly on (404) 525-5150 or contact us online.