What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are awarded to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant. They are often described as “vindictive” or “exemplary” damages. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 (a).  A jury is authorized to impose punitive damages when it concludes, based on 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. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 (b). Certainly willful misconduct may lead to the imposition of punitive damages but willfulness is not required. Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc. v. Knight, 332 Ga. App. 82, 92 (2015) (“It is not essential to a recovery for punitive damages that the person inflicting the damages was guilty of willful and intentional misconduct.”). “It is sufficient that the act be done under such circumstances as evinces an entire want of care and a conscious indifference to consequences.”  Hodges v. Effingham County Hosp. Authority, 182 Ga. App. 173, 175 (1987) (quoting Battle v. Kilcrease, 54 Ga. App. 808, 809 (1936)).

Is Gross Negligence Enough For Punitive Damages?

Georgia law suggests that “gross negligence” is not enough to support a claim for punitive damages. Wardlaw v. Ivey, 297 Ga. App. 240, 242 (2009) (“neither negligence nor gross negligence alone can support a punitive damages claims.”). Therefore, it is only logical that “an entire want of care and a conscious indifference to consequences” is something more than “gross negligence.” So what does “conscious indifference to consequences” mean? Georgia appellate courts define this phrase as “an intentional disregard of the rights of another.” Miller v. City Views at Rosa Burney Park GP, LLC, 323 Ga. App. 590, 597 (2013) (quoting Tyler v. Lincoln, 272 Ga. 118, 120 (2000).

“[W]hether a tort was sufficiently aggravating to authorize punitive damages is generally a jury question.” Tookes v. Murray, 297 Ga. App. 765, 768 (2009). “[A] jury may award punitive damages even where the clear and convincing evidence only creates an inference of the defendant’s conscious indifference to the consequences of his acts.” Tookes, 297 Ga. App. at 768 (emphasis added). However, punitive damages may only be awarded when actual compensatory damages are also awarded. Morris v. Pugmire Lincoln Mercury, Inc., 283 Ga. App. 238, 241 (2007).

What Is The Limit That Can Be Awarded For Punitive Damages?

In most Georgia cases, an award of punitive damages is limited to a maximum of $250,000.00. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g). There are two exceptions to this cap on damages which are outlined in O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(e)(1) and (f):

(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.

(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 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 the active tort-feasor.

In short, there is no cap on punitive damage awards in products liability cases and in cases where the defendant intended to cause harm or was drunk or high.

Lawsuits That May Award Punitive Damages.

Punitive damages may be awarded in a wide variety of lawsuits including claims involving automobile wrecks, premises liability, plane crashes, tractor-trailer wrecks, medical malpractice, legal malpractice, fraud, and trespass.

Attorney Joel Williams handles punitive damage cases and he offers free consultations. Call today to meet with Joel and gain a better understanding of whether you may have a claim for punitive damages.

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