Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are a type of compensation paid to injured victims in a personal injury lawsuit. The money does not compensate the plaintiff for actual damages.

Instead, a punitive damages award is intended to “punish” the defendant for grossly negligent behavior. 

When are Punitive Damages Awarded in a Georgia Personal Injury Case?

When are Punitive Damages Awarded in a Georgia Personal Injury Case?

Georgia Code Section §51-12-5.1 states that punitive damages are also known as “vindictive damages” or “exemplary damages.” They describe damages in a personal injury case awarded because of aggravating circumstances. The damages are awarded to punish, penalize, or deter the defendant.

“Deter the defendant” means to prevent them from committing similar conduct in the future. It also deters other individuals from committing acts similar to the defendant’s conduct. 

Punitive damages may only be awarded when the injured party proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions demonstrated:

  • Willful misconduct
  • Malice
  • Wantonness
  • Fraud
  • Oppression
  • Entire want of care

In other words, the defendant’s conduct raises the presumption of a conscious indifference to the consequences of his actions. However, proving that the defendant’s conduct was negligent is not sufficient. 

What Is the Burden of Proof for an Award of Punitive Damages?

Ordinary negligence does not justify punitive damages. The plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant’s actions rose to a level of gross negligence. 

Furthermore, the burden of proof for punitive damages is “clear and convincing evidence.” This level of proof is higher than the burden of proof for ordinary damages. This is because the purpose of punitive damages is to punish a defendant. 

In a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. That means there is more than a 50% chance that the allegations against the defendant are true. In other words, there is a greater chance the defendant is at fault than not at fault for causing the plaintiff harm.

However, clear and convincing evidence proves that there is a high probability the defendant is at fault. Clear and convincing evidence is less than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard but more than a “preponderance of the evidence” standard. 

The courts want to ensure that the defendant is provided due process before being ordered to pay punitive damages. Therefore, jury instructions must be clear regarding when to award punitive damages and the level of the plaintiff’s burden of proof.

Examples of Cases Involving Punitive Damage Awards

Punitive damages are only awarded in a few personal injury cases. 

Examples of conduct that could justify an award of punitive damages include, but are not limited to, cases involving:

  • Drunk driving accidents
  • Nursing home abuse
  • Sexual assault and rape
  • Driving under the influence of an illegal drug
  • Sex with a minor
  • Kidnapping
  • Assault with a deadly weapon
  • Felony assault
  • Robbery
  • Abuse of an incapacitated person or a person with disabilities

Punitive damages may also be awarded in cases involving defective products. For example, a company that intentionally withheld information regarding the risk of harm or failed to provide consumers with adequate warnings of risks may have to pay punitive damages to injured parties. 

How Much Can I Receive in Punitive Damages?

The United States Supreme Court ruled that punitive damages should not be excessive. The Court proposed a maximum of nine times the amount of compensatory damages awarded in the case as a cap for punitive damages. 

Compensatory damages represent the plaintiff’s losses. They include medical bills, lost wages, and other economic damages. They also include pain and suffering and other non-economic damages

Many states have laws that limit or restrict the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded. For example, Georgia caps punitive damages at $250,000 in most personal injury cases. However, there are a few exceptions to that rule.

Product Liability Cases

Cases involving defective products do not have a punitive damages cap in Georgia. However, 75% of the punitive damages award is paid to the State of Georgia. The remaining 25% of the award goes to the plaintiff. 

Specific Intent to Harm 

If a defendant acted with a specific intent to harm the plaintiff, the state does not impose a cap on damages. The conduct may be an intentional act to harm someone. It could also be a failure to act with the intent to cause harm.

Driving Under the Influence

The state does not impose caps on cases when a defendant failed to act or acted while:

  • Under the influence of alcohol
  • Under the influence of drugs, other than legally prescribed drugs taken according to a prescription 
  • Under the influence of any intentionally consumed aerosol, glue, or other toxic vapor to the degree that judgment is substantially impaired

DUI accidents are the most common type of case that involve punitive damages under this exception. However, other situations could arise where a defendant may be ordered to pay punitive damages because they were intoxicated.

Contact a Georgia Personal Injury Lawyer To Determine If You May Be Entitled to Punitive Damages 

If you’ve been injured by another person’s actions or inactions, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact an experienced Georgia personal injury lawyer to discuss your legal options. A lawyer will pursue all damages, including punitive damages, when justified.