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When Can You Sue a Negligent Driver for Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are designed to punish a defendant in a personal injury lawsuit. Unlike economic damages, which are supposed to compensate the plaintiff for his or her losses, punitive damages are meant to have a deterrent effect on an especially irresponsible defendant. To that end, under Georgia law a jury may only award punitive damages when there is “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.”

Corbett v. Celadon Trucking Services, Inc.

In many cases, a judge will not even allow a jury to consider punitive damages unless the plaintiff presents sufficient evidence that meets the statutory threshold. For example, a federal judge in Atlanta recently granted summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages to two defendants in an ongoing truck accident case. While this does not affect other elements of the plaintiff’s lawsuit, the judge made it clear this was not a case where punitive damages should even be an option.

The case itself follows a 2012 accident involving two tractor trailers. The plaintiff was driving one of the vehicles when, he claims, the defendant “swerved into the Plaintiff’s lane, causing the collision.” The plaintiff sued both the driver and the owner of the tractor trailer and asked the court to award punitive damages.

But as the judge explained, punitive damages in a car or truck accident case requires more than proof a defendant “simply violated a rule of the road.” Even “gross negligence” on the part of a driver is not enough. To sustain a punitive damages claim in Georgia, the plaintiff must prove “the collision resulted from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving” on the part of the defendant.

For instance, if a defendant has a long history of drunk driving and the employer continued to allow the driver to continue working for them, that could demonstrate “conscious indifference to consequences,” as required by Georgia’s punitive damages law. But the employer must have “actual knowledge of numerous and serious violations on its driver’s record.”

In this case, the judge said there was simply no evidence the defendant driver had any history of reckless driving. The judge noted the driver was not cited for driving under the influence following the accident, and in fact he had no history of drunk driving on his record. And while the defendant driver did have “four citations for speeding” and one other accident over the past ten years, that did not constitute a “pattern of dangerous driving.” Nor was there any evidence the defendant employer failed to properly check the driver’s record before allowing him onto the road.

Again, it is important to emphasize that the defendants may still be held liable for economic damages to the plaintiff. The judge noted there is evidence the defendant was negligent and therefore responsible for the accident. But punitive damages require a much higher standard, and the plaintiff simply failed to allege sufficient facts to meet that bar.