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Georgia Court Upholds Punitive Damages Award Against “Erratic” Driver

In a Georgia car accident case, a negligent driver may be liable for punitive damages if there is “clear and convincing evidence” of “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” For example, if the negligent driver was driving under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident, that would provide evidence of “willful misconduct” justifying a punitive damages award.

Dagne v. Schroeder

However, drunk driving is not the only thing that might lead a jury to award punitive damages. A recent Georgia case helps illustrate this point. This plaintiffs in this case were a mother and daughter who were driving home. The defendant was driving in the opposite direction on the same road. Witnesses observed the defendant “swerved within her lane and continuously sped up and slowed down.” At one point she swerved directly into the path of the plaintiffs’ vehicle. The mother tried to avoid the collision but failed. The vehicles collided, sending the plaintiff’s van into the air where it “tumbled several times after hitting the ground before finally coming to a rest upside down.”

The plaintiffs subsequently sued the defendant for negligence. At trial, witnesses who were at the scene testified they thought the defendant was drunk at the time of the accident. The plaintiffs also introduced evidence related to the defendant’s previous charges for driving under the influence (which resulted in probation in one case). The defendant denied this and presented witnesses in support of her position. The jury ultimately believed the defendant on this issue, ruling she had not been driving under the influence, but nevertheless held her responsible for the accident and awarded punitive damages of $100,000, in addition to compensatory damages of $150,000. (It is important to remember that punitive damages are not designed to compensate the injured plaintiff, but rather “to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant.”)

On appeal, the defendant argued the jury could not award punitive damages after finding that she had not been driving under the influence. The Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed. A three-judge panel said the jury heard ample evidence that the defendant was “driving erratically,” and drunk or not, that was sufficient to support an award of punitive damages. Under Georgia law, the court explained, punitive damages only require evidence supporting an “inference of the defendant’s conscious indifference to the consequences of [her] acts.”

The defendant also objected to the fact that she was not allowed to introduce evidence of her “financial condition” during the jury’s consideration of punitive damages. The appeals court declined to second guess the trial judge’s decision on this point. While such evidence “may be admissible,” the Court of Appeals said there was nothing in Georgia law “mandating such admission in every punitive damages case.” Indeed, in this case the trial judge also rejected the plaintiffs’ request to admit evidence about the value of defendant’s insurance policy.