For years, Georgia law has held that plaintiffs in abusive litigation lawsuits may not seek punitive damages under any circumstances. That holding changed in February of 2020, thanks to a decision from the Supreme Court of Georgia.
The decision reversed a ruling from the Court of Appeals that held up the status quo. Now, plaintiffs pursuing compensation for abusive litigation have the right to seek punitive damages as well. Despite that right, there is no guarantee in any case that punitive damages will be granted.
What Is Abusive Litigation?
Because of the costly nature of litigation, Georgia has adopted a law that provides for recourse when a person or business faces a frivolous lawsuit. This law, known as “Liability for Abusive Litigation” provides civil liability for any party that files a lawsuit or continues with litigation in bad faith. According to state law, litigation is abusive if the party to the lawsuit:
- acts with malice, and
- acts without substantial justification, or the legal action is frivolous, groundless, or vexatious.
To proceed with a claim for abusive litigation, the defendant to the original lawsuit must notify the plaintiff that they intend to do so in writing. This notice must give the original plaintiff an opportunity to dismiss the case or discontinue their frivolous position. If they fail to do so, they could face a lawsuit of their own for abusive litigation. While a successful claim could lead to actual damages, prior case law prevented a person from seeking punitive damages if their abusive litigation claim was successful.
Coen v Aptean
The issue of punitive damages in abusive litigation claims reached the Georgia Supreme Court in the case of Coen v Aptean. In the case, plaintiff Coen and his employer were embroiled in litigation for years. Ultimately, the cases were decided in Coen’s favor. Coen then sued Aptean for abusive litigation and sought punitive damages. The trial court and the Court of Appeals both blocked Coen from seeking punitive damages, and the issue went to the Georgia Supreme Court. According to the Supreme Court, punitive damages are available as long as the claim for abusive litigation was not based on damages for injuries to happiness, peace, or feelings. The court held that outside of that narrow limitation, punitive damages were not a form of impermissible double recovery and were available in these cases.
The primary impact of this decision is fairly clear in that it allows most plaintiffs pursuing a claim of abusive litigation to seek punitive damages as part of their recovery. However, the decision could have other far-reaching consequences. The court confirmed that the phrase “all damages allowable by law” was as broad as many plaintiffs have long argued, which could mean statutes with that language allow for the recovery of attorney’s fees.