In general, monetary damages in a personal injury case are meant to compensate the victims for their losses. But there are cases in which a jury may award what are known as “punitive damages.” These damages are not meant to compensate, but rather to punish. Put another way, punitive damages are designed to “send a message” that certain types of outrageous or egregious misconduct will not be tolerated in a civilized society.
Punitive damages are considered an extraordinary remedy under Georgia law. This means that it is not enough for a plaintiff to show they were injured by the defendant’s negligence. Rather, state law requires proof by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant engaged in “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”
Ferguson v. Garkuhsa
To illustrate the high bar that personal injury plaintiffs must clear just to seek an award of punitive damages, consider this recent decision from a federal judge in Atlanta. This is an ongoing lawsuit, Ferguson v. Garkuhsa, arising from a 2016 car accident.
The underlying facts are fairly straightforward. A tractor-trailer driver “took his eyes off the road” and entered an intersection against a red light. The tractor-trailer then collided with a car that was lawfully in the intersection. The driver of the car (the plaintiff) then filed a personal injury lawsuit against the tractor-trailer driver and his employer (the defendants).
The plaintiff’s lawsuit asked for punitive damages against both defendants. This was based primarily on the tractor-trailer driver’s prior record. Specifically, he had “several driving infractions in the three years before his employment” with his current employer. One of those infractions involved the driver striking two pedestrians in Washington State after he failed to yield at an intersection. Even more alarmingly, the driver had three arrests for DUI over a three-year period.
The judge overseeing the case said the plaintiff could pursue a punitive damages claim against the employer, but not the driver. With respect to the employer, the judge noted that the company, as a commercial trucking business, had a duty under federal law to check the driving records of any driver it hired. In this case, the employer only pulled part of the driver’s records. Had they checked all of the records–as the law required it to–the company would have learned the driver lied on his employment application and failed to disclose several serious traffic violations. From this, the judge said, a jury could conclude that the employer acted with “conscious indifference to the consequences” of hiring a reckless and unqualified driver to operate one of its vehicles.
That said, the judge found there was no viable claim for punitive damages against the driver himself. This was because the plaintiff failed to produce clear and convincing evidence that the driver acted with a “willful and wanton lack of care” during the actual collision. Merely driving through a red light is not enough, the judge said.