Georgia Personal Injury Trial Attorneys

Punitive Damages in Car Accident Cases: When Are They Awarded?

By: Fry | Goehring

punitive damages georgia

When you go to trial for a car accident case in Georgia, you may be eligible for compensatory damages that cover expenses related to your injuries and other losses. Often, in some personal injury cases, victims may be entitled to compensation for various damages. However, understanding the differences in the damages available in car accident cases can be confusing at best. You may have heard your lawyer mention punitive damages and wondered what they are and whether they apply to your car accident case.

These are justified questions to which you must know the answers, particularly if you are considering filing a car accident lawsuit in Georgia. Generally, two types of damages are available in motor vehicle crashes: compensatory and punitive. Let’s dive into the difference between the two and whether you qualify for punitive damages in Georgia.

Distinguishing Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages

When you sustain an injury or suffer losses due to another party’s negligence in an auto accident, you can file a lawsuit against the at-fault party and their insurance company in Georgia’s civil court. If you can prove the defendant’s liability, the court may order them and their insurance company to pay you compensatory and punitive damages.

Generally categorized into economic and non-economic damages, compensatory damages are the most common in car accident cases. They are intended to compensate accident victims for losses associated with their injuries. Compensatory damages cover losses such as:

If a car accident results in a wrongful death, surviving family members may receive death benefits, such as funds to cover funeral expenses, loss of projected earnings, and loss of companionship.

Punitive or exemplary damages are less common in Atlanta personal injury cases. They are awarded in conjunction with compensatory damages. Punitive damages aren’t meant to compensate accident victims but to penalize, punish, or deter defendants for their aggravating actions.

Criteria for Awarding Punitive Damages in Car Accident Cases

In Georgia, punitive damages may be available in car accident cases if there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions amounted to willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, or oppression. Georgia courts may award punitive damages if the defendant’s actions are deemed grossly negligent. This is behavior that goes beyond ordinary negligence.

It’s important to note that Georgia has a statutory cap on punitive damages of $250,000. Still, the particulars of your car accident case can determine the amount of punitive damages you may receive. Some exceptions exist to this general rule, including:

  • Intoxication. The $250,000 cap doesn’t apply to cases where the defendant was under the influence of an impairing substance.
  • Intentional harm. Georgia’s punitive damages cap doesn’t apply in accidents where the at-fault driver acted with the specific intent to cause harm.
  • Product liability. The cap doesn’t apply if a product or service failure causes catastrophic injuries.

In the above situations, you may have an opportunity to secure more compensation for your losses. Georgia courts ultimately determine the amount of punitive damages based on the details and evidence in car accident cases.

Examples of Conduct Warranting Punitive Damages

Judges award punitive damages less often than compensatory damages in personal injury cases. Some of the instances where courts may award punitive damages in Georgia include:

Courts typically consider these cases deplorable, implying they are simply wrong. If you are a victim in any of the above cases, we encourage you not to settle your claim promptly or go to court without consulting a lawyer who can build a compelling case to maximize your chances of getting the best possible compensation.

Real-life examples of cases where courts awarded punitive damages include:

Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants

In this case, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck sustained 2nd and 3rd-degree burns after spilling hot coffee on her lap. Investigations revealed that McDonald’s had received hundreds of complaints regarding how their coffee caused severe burns and that the restaurant didn’t change its policy requiring coffee to be kept at 180°F. A jury awarded Stella $2.7 million in punitive damages since McDonald’s knew their coffee was dangerous but didn’t correct the problem.

Kenneth Vigneron vs. DuPont

A federal jury ordered DuPont to pay Kenneth Vigneron $10.5 million in punitive damages after the company maliciously and negligently dumped C-8 into Kenneth’s local water supply. The plaintiff developed cancer due to exposure to C-8, a toxic chemical used in the production of Teflon.

Legal Process of Claiming Punitive Damages

Generally, there are two stages to a personal injury lawsuit involving punitive damages. The first stage involves presenting your request for punitive damages to the court. You and your Atlanta car accident lawyer will file a motion for trial and present a claim for damages. You will ask the judge or jury to determine whether your car accident case meets the standard for punitive damages.

If your case qualifies for punitive damages, it will proceed to the next stage, determining your punitive damages. The court will determine whether the defendant is liable for punitive damages in the car accident case and consider factors such as:

  • The defendant’s earlier criminal activity
  • Past actions
  • Their financial capacity
  • The possibility that they may repeat the wrongful actions
  • The ratio of compensatory and punitive damages

During this stage, your car accident attorney can present evidence, such as past lawsuits for the same wrongful actions or criminal history. This doesn’t guarantee a punitive damage award but may come in handy in swaying the judge’s or jury’s opinion on the matter.

Contact Our Atlanta Car Accident Lawyers Today

Since every car accident lawsuit is unique and complex, the best way to understand if you qualify for punitive damages is to consult an experienced personal injury lawyer. At Fry | Goehring, we offer free case evaluations to help accident victims understand the potential of their circumstances. Our legal team is ready to speak with you and help you pursue compensatory and punitive damages from those who hurt you. Call 404-969-1284 now for a free, no-obligation consultation with our reputable Atlanta car accident lawyers.