In personal injury or other tort cases, punitive damages are designed not to compensate the victim, but to "penalize, punish or deter" the wrongdoer. Georgia's punitive damages law requires a plaintiff prove the defendant's "willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care that would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences." As the Georgia courts have explained, punitive damages require more than showing a defendant's negligence--there must also be "circumstances of aggravation or outrage."
The Georgia Court of Appeals recently dismissed a punitive damages claim arising from an automobile accident. The appeals court disagreed with a trial judge's decision to deny the defendant's motion for summary judgment on a punitive damages claim. The decision turned on an assessment of an employer's responsibility in hiring one of the drivers involved in the accident.
MasTEC North America, Inc. v. Wilson
The accident occurred in 2009 in Carrollton. A commercial pickup truck and a car collided at an intersection. Both drivers claimed the other ran a red light, and local police cited both parties. The automobile driver suffered serious injuries and sued the truck driver and his employer.
In addition to regular tort claims for compensatory damages, the plaintiff made several additional claims for punitive damages. She argued the employer was negligent in hiring and supervising the truck driver. As evidence, she cited three prior moving violations--i.e., running through a stop sign--committed by the truck driver between 2002 and 2005, three years before the employer hired him. The plaintiff said the employer knew about these violations through a pre-employment background check and was therefore negligent. (Such background checks are routinely required by federal law for all commercial truck operators.)
The Court of Appeals disagreed. Presiding Judge John J. Ellington, writing for a three-judge panel, said the truck driver's undisputed record actually disproved the plaintiff's claims. Prior to his collision with the plaintiff's vehicle, the defendant had never been in a traffic accident. The moving violations cited by the plaintiff actually took place in the defendant's personal vehicle; his commercial driving record contained no complaints or violations. And the employer had properly supervised and trained the driver with respect to safety.
In sum, Judge Ellington said there was nothing to suggest this particular accident resulted from a "pattern or policy of dangerous driving" that would justify punitive damages. Accordingly, both the driver and his employer were entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law on this issue. Furthermore, the employer was entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff's negligent hiring and related claims, because they essentially duplicated her negligence claims.
It is important to note the Court of Appeals did not consider the negligence issue. The appeals court agreed to review the summary judgment on punitive damages while the negligence cause remains pending before the trial court. The courts have yet to rule on whether the truck driver or his employer are at fault for the accident and what damages, if any, may be owed to the plaintiff.