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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

You probably know that if you are injured due to someone else’s negligence, you can sue that person to recover your medical expenses. But defining the precise scope of medical expenses can get complicated, particularly in the U.S. healthcare system. For instance, are you entitled to recover the full amount you were billed by your doctor or hospital, or just what your insurance company agreed to pay?

Higgs v. Costa Crociere Spa Company

A federal appeals court recently confronted this question in the context of a maritime law dispute. While personal injury cases that arise on land normally fall under state law, if are you injured on a cruise ship or elsewhere on the “high seas,” you typically need to sue the negligent party under federal maritime law.

In September 2002, Yahazia Odelia purchased two side-by-side plots from a cemetery in DeKalb, Georgia. The plots were known as Space 15 and Space 16, respectively. Odelia buried her sister in pace 16 and reserved Space 15 for her mother when her time came.

When Odelia’s mother passed away in 2016, Odelia was shocked to learn that the cemetery had re-sold Space 15 to another family in April 2005, who buried one of their loved ones in the plot previously reserved for Odelia’s mother. As you might expect, Odelia was not happy about this and took legal action.

In April 2016, a Georgia judge ordered the cemetery to disinter the remains of the person buried in Space 15 and to make that space available for the burial of Odelia’s mother, as they were contractually obligated to do in the first place. Odelia was finally able to bury her mother next to her sister in June 2017.

One of the most common types of personal injury lawsuits in Georgia is the “slip-and-fall” case. We know how these cases start. A customer is shopping in a local store and suddenly slips on a puddle of water or some other liquid. The customer sustains serious injuries in the fall that require medical attention. Later, the customer sues the store owner to recover damages arising from the accident.

Under Georgia premises liability law, it is not enough for the customer to prove that the hazard–i.e., the puddle of water–existed and was the cause of the fall. The customer must also demonstrate that the store owner had superior knowledge of the hazard. By “superior knowledge,” we mean that the property owner knew about (or should have known about) the hazard in time to warn the customer about the potential danger. In contrast, if the customer had equal or superior knowledge of the hazard, then the store owner can defeat any personal injury claim. Put another way, if the customer was warned about the hazard in some way, yet chose to risk walking in the area regardless, the customer cannot then turn around and demand compensation from the property owner for any injuries suffered.

Allen v. AB Aviation, Inc.

Causation is a key element of any personal injury claim. What do we mean by that? Basically, if you are in a car accident and later sue the other driver for damages, it is not enough to show that person’s negligence led to the accident. You also need to show that the accident was the “proximate cause” of any physical, mental, or monetary loss that you suffered. Absent such proof causation, there is no viable personal injury claim.

Coleman v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

As a general rule, you do not need expert evidence, such as testimony from your doctor, to prove causation. As with every rule, there are exceptions. For instance, if your personal injury claim involves a “medical question” that requires specialized medical knowledge–i.e., something the average juror could not understand without some sort of guidance from a trained professional in that specialty–then the court will require such evidence before allowing a case to proceed.

In any personal injury case, there is always a risk that the defendant has insufficient assets to pay any judgment or settlement and will therefore seek bankruptcy protection. In many cases, this means the plaintiff–the victim–is out of luck. What happens if there is a co-defendant who is not bankrupt? Can they be held solely responsible for the plaintiff’s damages?

Meeks v. Newcomb

The Atlanta-based U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed such a case. In Meeks v. Newcomb, a man was killed after his vehicle crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer. The victim’s widow subsequently sued both the company that owned the truck as well as the individual driver.

Many auto accident victims struggle not only to recover from their physical injuries, but also to deal with excessive medical bills. Georgia hospitals frequently file “liens” against accident victims’ potential personal injury claims in order to ensure their bills get paid. But the actual amount of these bills can vary wildly, especially when the victim lacks health insurance.

Bowden v. Medical Center, Inc.

In 2011, an uninsured woman named Danielle Bowden was injured in an auto accident. She subsequently received care at The Medical Center, Inc., (TMC) in Muscogee County. Bowden had no health insurance at the time, and TMC billed her over $21,000 for her treatment. TMC then filed a hospital lien against Bowden’s potential recovery against the other driver who caused her accident.

Industrial accidents are often the result of a chain of events. There are usually multiple parties whose negligence or intentional failures led to an innocent worker’s injury. Of course, when the victim files a lawsuit, these parties are quick to try and deflect blame to one another.

Hill v. Konecranes, Inc.

An ongoing federal lawsuit in Savannah, Hill v. Konecranes, Inc., provides an apt illustration of this principle. This tragic case involves the 2015 death of a crane operator. The victim worked for International Paper Company (IP) in Augusta, where he used a gantry crane to move timber. Konecranes, Inc., was the company responsible for manufacturing and installing the crane. IP also retained Konecranes to perform regular inspections of the gantry crane.

Most personal injury lawsuits involve accidents, i.e. unintentional but negligent conduct, but sometimes a personal injury arises from criminal activity. When this is the case, the criminal party can be held liable in a personal injury lawsuit–but their insurance company probably will not cover any award of damages. That is because insurers typically include criminal activity from the scope of their policy coverage.

Marcus v. Country Mutual DO-013 Insurance Company

A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Marcus v. Country Mutual DO-013 Insurance Company, provides a helpful illustration of this principle. This case unfortunately began with a scenario that has become all too common in Georgia — a white person reporting “suspicious” African-Americans to the police. According to court records, the woman repeatedly complained to law enforcement in Macon about several African-American youths. When questioned, the juveniles explained that the woman had repeatedly shouted racial epithets at them. The police advised the youths to “stay on the other side of the street when passing by her house, knowing that [she] was upset and hostile.”

In personal injury law, you often come across the phrase “actual or constructive notice.” This refers to a property owner’s knowledge with respect to a given hazard. Actual notice means the owner knew the hazard existed. Constructive notice, on the other hand, means the owner “should have known” there was a hazard based on the exercise of reasonable care.

Lebron v. Royal Caribbean Cruises LTD

It is critical for a plaintiff in any personal injury case to establish the existence of either actual or constructive notice. Without such proof, a court will dismiss the plaintiff’s claims. At the same time, judges need to be careful to not dismiss a valid lawsuit based on an incorrect interpretation of the evidence.

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