What Qualifies for Punitive Damages in Georgia?

lawyer meeting with a judge

Does your case qualify for punitive damages? Punitive damages are not intended to compensate the plaintiff. Instead, punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer to such an extent that the defendant will be deterred in the future from engaging in the type of behavior that caused the injury.

In a Georgia personal injury case, plaintiffs may sue a defendant who has legally harmed them. If successful, the plaintiffs are entitled to damages that make the plaintiff whole—as if they were never injured in the first place. These damages are considered “compensatory” because the intent is to compensate the plaintiff for any loss they’ve suffered. For example, if a defendant driver’s car hit the plaintiff’s car, and the plaintiff was seriously injured, the court could enter a judgment requiring the defendant to pay compensatory damages—enough to buy the plaintiff a new car, pay the plaintiff’s doctor bills, and cover the plaintiff’s lost wages and pain and suffering. However, in some cases, Georgia law also allows plaintiffs to be receive “punitive damages” as well.

Given the very different goals of these damages, Georgia law has developed specific substantive and procedural requirements for punitive damage claims. Let’s discuss some basics of what qualifies for punitive damages.

What are the basic legal requirements for punitive damages?

First, to qualify for punitive damages, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s actions have damaged them in a quantitative way. This means that, as a threshold matter, a plaintiff must first prove they are entitled to quantifiable damages. A plaintiff can’t just get punitive damages alone for a psychological injury. 

The plaintiff must prove that the defendant was an active tortfeasor—i.e., the wrongdoer did something that harmed the plaintiff. For punitive damages, a defendant must have taken action (or actively refused to take action) that directly caused the plaintiff’s injury. Inaction is insufficient.

In cases such as a negligence claim, the plaintiff’s injury could result from a defendant’s neglect and inattention. That could result in compensatory damages, but that’s not enough for punitive damages. For punitive damages in Georgia, there must be more than mere negligence.  There must be recklessness or an intentional act. 

This active tortfeasor requirement limits who can be sued. Others who are wrongdoers, but are not directly responsible for causing the plaintiff’s injury, can be required to pay compensatory damages, but they would not be liable for punitive damages. 

Consider this classic example to understand the difference between the active tortfeasor and the others who could be defendants: If a drunk driver hits a plaintiff, the plaintiff can sue both the driver and (under Georgia’s dram shop laws) the restaurant that served the driver the alcohol. If the plaintiff won, the driver would be potentially liable for compensatory and punitive damages. But the restaurant would only be required to pay compensatory damages because the restaurant did not directly act to harm the plaintiff.

Because the intent is to punish the defendant, the law requires that the plaintiff must prove “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.”

This is a significantly higher standard of proof than what is required for most civil cases—a “preponderance of the evidence.”

In years past, who was considered the active tortfeasor was narrowly applied. However, in 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court broadened the rule, essentially changing what qualifies for punitive damages, in Reid v. Morris.

In Reid, an injured-in-an-accident plaintiff sued a drunk driver and the drunk driver’s passenger. The passenger, who was also intoxicated, owned the car and had given the driver permission (and the keys) to operate his vehicle. The trial court had found that only the driver was the only active tortfeasor who should pay punitive damages, but the state’s supreme court disagreed. The appellate court said that the passenger had taken enough sufficient actions that he could also be considered an active tortfeasor, and he, too, might have to pay punitive damages.  

While the ruling is still too new to know its full impact, Reid may lead to a substantial expansion of punitive damages litigation.

What Types of Cases Can Include Claims for These Damages?

Claims for punitive damages are allowed for “intentional torts,” when someone’s actions result in injuring another person. Examples of what qualifies for punitive damages are:

  • Drunk-driving accidents
  • Hit-and-run accidents
  • Trucking accidents
  • Assault and battery
  • Sexual assault
  • Dog bite injury
  • Medical malpractice
  • Product liability cases 

Generally speaking, punitive damages are not available for breach of contract claims, even if the breach is in bad faith. For example, punitive damages aren’t allowed if someone were to sue an insurance company for bad-faith denial of coverage. Instead, in that case, only compensatory damages would be allowed.

Additionally, punitive damages are not allowed against a deceased defendant’s estate: A defendant must be alive at the commencement of the litigation.  

How Much Can You Recover in Punitive Damages?

There are both state law and Constitutional limits on the size of punitive awards. Georgia law caps most punitive awards at $250,000; however, there are three important exceptions to this limit.

First, product liability claims are not limited by the statutory cap. However, it’s important to note that in these cases, only 25% of the punitive damages, plus attorneys fees and costs, go to the plaintiff. The remainder of the award goes to the State of Georgia since the presumption is that the faulty product has injured the state’s population as a whole.

The cap also does not apply if the defendant was impaired because of their use of drugs, alcohol, or other substances at the time of the action that led to the plaintiff’s injury. While this clearly applies to drunk driving cases, the law is not limited to those cases, and the Reid case suggests it could apply to other claims.

The last exception to the cap is that it does not apply if the defendant is proved to have “acted, or failed to act, with the specific intent to cause harm.” This is a high bar to meet. It means that the defendant intentionally wanted to harm the plaintiff. If the plaintiff could only prove that the defendant knew there was a risk of hurting the plaintiff, that alone would still not qualify for punitive damages.

Beyond that, an informal guidepost is that punitive damages are often limited by a “single digit”—meaning that the punitive damages should be no more than one digit past than the compensatory damages. E.g., if the compensatory damages are for $10,000, then the punitive damages should be no exceed an amount in hundreds of thousands.

A plaintiff who receives punitive damages may also be entitled to recover attorneys’ fees under a different statute, O.C.G.A. Section § 13-6-11.

What are the Requirements for Punitive Damages Claims?

In addition to the substantive requirements for a punitive damage claim, there are procedural requirements for punitive damages.

The plaintiff must include any claim for punitive damages in the lawsuit, and the complaint must allege specific facts that, if proven true, would justify those punitive damages. Once the trial has begun, a plaintiff can’t ask the trier of fact (i.e., the judge or jury) for punitive damages, no matter what new facts the trial may have revealed.

In terms of deciding liability for punitive damages, Georgia law requires two (or even three) separate trial stages. In the first part of the trial, the trier of fact must decide if the plaintiff’s case has met the standard for what qualifies for punitive damages:

If the plaintiff has proven—with that clear and convincing standard of evidence—that the defendant harmed the plaintiff and should pay punitive damages, then the trial resumes.

In this second part of the trial, the trier of fact decides how much damages the defendant must pay. To calculate the amount of damages that must be paid, the trier of fact can review evidence and other testimony relating to:

  • the defendant’s past actions;
  • the likelihood of defendant’s continued wrongdoing;
  • subsequent remedial acts taken to prevent others’ future injury;
  • the ratio between the amount of compensative and punitive damages;
  • the defendant’s earlier violent acts or other criminal behavior could be considered, and
  • the defendant’s wealth and ability to pay damages.

In the trial’s second stage, because the trier of fact determines the defendant’s likelihood to harm others, the plaintiff may introduce evidence that might have been excluded in the first part of the trial—such as the defendant’s criminal history.

Substantively and procedurally, suits for punitive damages are complex. They are frequently brought but seldomly won. That’s why you need an expert in personal injury law, a plaintiff’s lawyer who has mastered both the substantive and procedural law.

If someone has injured you or one of your loved ones, call Scholle Law: We are a preeminent Georgia law firm that exclusively handles personal injury cases. With offices in Gwinnett County,  Midtown Atlanta, the Perimeter, and Decatur, we serve clients throughout greater Atlanta and Georgia. Please contact our office or call toll-free at 866-582-1302, or in Atlanta at 770-717-5100, to schedule a free consultation.