Tort law is designed to remedy injuries caused by acts of man, as opposed to “acts of God.” Under Georgia law, this means that you cannot hold a defendant liable for “an accident produced by physical causes which are irresistible or inevitable, such as lightning, storms, perils of the sea, earthquakes, inundations, sudden death or illness.” In other words, if there is no “human agency” involved, there is no viable personal injury claim.
Head v. De Souse
But “act of God” does not mean a defendant can escape liability simply by pointing to a natural phenomenon that might have played some role in the accident. A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Head v. De Souse, offers a helpful illustration of this point. In this case, a teenage driver attempted to dismiss a personal injury lawsuit based on the fact there was sun in her eyes at the time of the underlying accident.
The then-16-year-old defendant was driving from school to a local Costco warehouse. The plaintiff was walking his dog on the sidewalk near the store. The plaintiff made a right turn into the Costco parking lot, and in doing so struck and injured both the plaintiff and the dog. Local police later cited the defendant for “failure to yield to a pedestrian.”
The plaintiff subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant. During a deposition, the defendant testified that as she made the turn into the parking lot, “the sun temporarily blinded her from seeing [the defendant] and his dog in the crosswalk.” On this basis, the defendant raised “act of God” as an affirmative defense.
The plaintiff moved for summary judgment on this issue, which the trial court granted. The Court of Appeals agreed this was not an act of God, but rather an act of a teenager. The appeals court noted the defendant herself testified she did not use her car’s sun visor or wear sunglasses, even though she knew it was a sunny day and routinely visited the Costco in question. In short, there was no evidence “that the sunlight she encountered was so extraordinary and unexpected as to render the accident that occurred inevitable.”
However, the Court of Appeal did side with the defense on another issue. In his lawsuit, the plaintiff asked the trial court to award punitive damages. Normally, punitive damages are reserved for cases where the defendant’s actions involved “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”
Here, the plaintiff based his punitive damages claim on the defendant’s deposition testimony that she had been “talking and texting” on her phone sometime prior to the accident. Using a mobile phone in this manner while driving is a violation of Georgia traffic laws. That said, the Court of Appeals explained that the defendant “was not using her cell phone at the time of the accident.” There was therefore no way to tie her texting-while-driving to the accident itself, and thus no grounds for a jury to award punitive damages under Georgia law.