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Georgia Appeals Court Affirms No Award of Attorney Fees in Tractor Accident Lawsuit

Under Georgia law, the winning party in a personal injury (or any other civil) lawsuit is usually not entitled to recover attorney fees or costs in connection with the litigation. As the Georgia Supreme Court noted in a 1941 decision, “Where there is a bona fide controversy for the tribunals to settle, and the parties can not adjust it amicably, there should be no burdening of one with the counsel fees of the other, unless there has been wanton or excessive indulgence in litigation.” The Georgia legislature may make exceptions to this rule, however, and one such example was the subject of a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision.

Horton v. Dennis

This case began with a 2008 accident in Telfair County. A tractor trailer crossing Highway 31 near McRae crashed into a truck. The truck driver suffered serious injuries, including a mild traumatic brain injury and permanent erectile dysfunction.

The truck driver sued the tractor trailer driver, his employer and the employer’s insurance company. The pre-trial discovery lasted about two years. Just before the trial began in 2011, the defendants all admitted liability with respect to the cause of the accident. They continued to deny, however, that the accident was responsible for the truck driver’s brain injury and erectile dysfunction. Those issues went to a jury, which ultimately ruled for the truck driver and awarded him and his wife over $3.8 million in damages.

After the defendants liability admission, the truck driver moved to add a claim for attorney fees to his complaint. As noted above, such claims are normally not recognized in Georgia. However, the legislature has authorized juries to award attorney fees “where the defendant has acted in bad faith, has been stubbornly litigious, or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense.”

But in this case, the truck driver’s request for attorney fees never made it to the jury. The trial judge granted summary judgment on this issue to the defendants. The court found there was no bad faith on the defendant’s’ part and that there was always a “bona fide controversy” over the connection between the accident and the truck driver’s neurological injuries. Therefore the statutory exception allow for attorney fees did not apply.

In a unanimous decision issued November 21, a three-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed. The appeals panel noted that the defendants vigorously disputed the truck driver’s expert witness testimony tying the accident to his injuries. More importantly, there was nothing to suggest the defendants forced the truck driver to “to resort to litigation” or cause him “unnecessary trouble” by litigating the case.

The legislative exception for attorney fees is designed to prevent defendants from refusing to pay claims where they know they have no reasonable defense. As the panel explained, the law is there to discourage a “so sue me” attitude from people who know they are in the wrong. Even though the jury in this case ultimately ruled for the plaintiff on the merits, there was still a legitimate dispute, so the common law rule that each side should bear responsibility for its own attorney fees holds.