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Georgia Judge Reduces Damage Award Against Car Manufacturers

Georgia is a “comparative fault” state. This means in a personal injury lawsuit, any damages awarded a plaintiff must be reduced in proportion to his or her share of the liability. For example, Driver A and Driver B are in an automobile accident. Driver A sues Driver B for negligence, and a jury awards Driver A $10,000 in damages. If the jury also determines Driver A was 30 percent responsible for the accident, the judge would accordingly reduce the damage award from $10,000 to $7,000.

Bullock v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.

A federal judge in Columbus recently applied Georgia’s comparative fault rule to a product liability case. The plaintiffs are a husband and wife who were in a single-car accident. They alleged a defect in the vehicle’s turbocharger caused it to suddenly accelerate. The wife, who was driving at the time, said she lost control of the vehicle, which left the road and flipped over, seriously injuring her. Her husband also sought damages for his wife’s injuries under a “loss of consortium” claim. The couple named the manufacturers of the car and the turbocharger as defendants.

The case was tried before U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land in August of this year. On September 4, a jury awarded the plaintiffs a combined $7 million in damages: $6 million to the wife and $1 million to the husband. The jury further determined the manufacturers of the car and the defective turbocharger were 60 percent liable for the accident, while the wife was 40 percent responsible. (The two manufacturers conceded they were equally liable for any damages, so it was unnecessary for the jury to further apportion the 60 percent fault between them.)

One week after the jury’s verdict, Judge Land entered a final judgment reducing the damage awards by 40 percent. The plaintiffs argued Georgia law did not require such a reduction in a “strict liability product defect claim” like the one in this case. Judge Land noted this specific situation has not been previously addressed by the Georgia courts. But based on his interpretation of previous Georgia Supreme Court decisions, he concluded that court would likely hold the comparative fault rule applies in this case. “The comparative fault statute does not distinguish between causes of action based on the nature of the tortious conduct upon which the claim is based,” Judge Land said, adding there was “no exception” for strict liability on the part of a product manufacturer.

This not only applied to the wife’s injuries, but the husband’s loss of consortium despite the fact he was not at fault for the accident. Citing a prior decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Judge Land said “the comparative fault statute required a reduction in the passenger spouse’s damages even though the passenger spouse was not at fault and would have no tort claim against the driver spouse due to interspousal immunity.” Accordingly, the judge reduced the wife’s damage award from $7 million to $4.2 million, and the husband’s loss of consortium award from $1 million to $600,000.