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Does Violating Traffic Laws Make a Georgia Driver Liable for Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are an extraordinary remedy available in only certain personal injury cases. Under Georgia law, a plaintiff can only seek punitive damages if the evidence shows the defendant’s actions demonstrated “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” Since punitive damages are meant to deter outrageous conduct such as drunk driving, rather than compensate the victim for his or her injuries, it is not enough to prove simple or gross negligence on the part of the defendant.

Amoateng v. Nickerson

In the context of a car accident, a driver is considered negligent “per se”–i.e., as a matter of law–if he or she fails to follow the rules of the road. For example, if a driver runs a red light and hits another vehicle in the intersection, that is a case of negligence per se. This means the driver of the other car would be entitled to compensatory damages for his or her injuries.

Negligence per se does not automatically translate into punitive damages. Consider this recent ruling from a federal judge in Atlanta. This case involves a tractor trailer accident that took place in 2014. The defendants include the driver and owner of the truck. The plaintiff was driving the other vehicle. She alleges that the defendants’ truck overturned due to an unsecured load.

There is no question that failing to properly secure a truck’s cargo violates Georgia traffic laws. The defendants here were cited by police at the accident scene for an unsecured load. The defendants opposed the plaintiff’s demand for punitive damages, arguing that this infraction did not rise to the level of “wanton misconduct” or any of the other standards set forth in Georgia law for awarding such damages.

The judge agreed. Punitive damages are typically permitted in car accident cases only after the plaintiff can show the defendant engaged in a “pattern or policy of dangerous driving.” A single incident is not a pattern. As the judge noted, the defendant-driver in this case “had not been involved in a motor vehicle collision while operating a commercial vehicle” prior to the accident with the plaintiff. There was also no evidence the defendant-driver was drunk or committed any infraction beyond the unsecured load. Accordingly, the judge granted summary judgment to the defense on the issue of punitive damages.

The judge further held that the plaintiff could not ask for punitive damages against the defendant-owner of the truck. The plaintiff alleged the owner failed to follow federal truck safety regulations. The judge said the plaintiff did not produce any credible evidence in support of this argument, however, and in any case, trucking companies are not legally required to train drivers who already possess a valid commercial driver’s license.

Of course, the owner is still liable for the ordinary negligence of the driver. And the judge’s ruling only discussed the question of punitive damages. The plaintiff is still free to seek compensatory damages for the injuries she actually sustained at trial.