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Punitive Damages for Drunk Drivers

When a driver behaves in a manner so outrageous that it's clear they had no regard for the safety of other drivers, you can recover not only for any resulting injury, but also punishment or punitive damages against the driver and their insurance company. 

The most common cases involving punitive damages are:

  • People hit by Drunk Drivers.
  • People hit by tractor trailers with poor driver safety and operational records.
  • People involved in hit and run accidents where the other driver is caught.

Punitive damages in Georgia are governed by statute- O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1.  Under the provisions of this law, punitive damages (i.e., damages designed to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant’s conduct) are to be awarded only in injury cases when the plaintiff can show by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”  

In layman’s terms, that means punitive damages are warranted in a standard auto wreck case if there is some particularly extraordinary fact- for example, the defendant was cited for DUI or fleeing the scene of an accident with injuries. 

Things can get slightly complicated, however, when it comes time to try these types of cases in front of a jury.  In general, most cases involving punitive damages have to bifurcated into two separate phases.  First, the jury has to decide issues of compensatory damages and whether punitive damages are warranted.  Then, in the second phase, the jury would decide the amount of punitive damages to be awarded.  See Webster v. Boyett, 269 Ga. 191. 

However, if the trial court determines that the introduction of punitive evidence in the first phase of the case might also inflame the jury on issues of liability and compensatory damages, then a trifurcated trial procedure is allowed.  Id.  Under the 3 step approach, the first phase resolves issues of fault, causation, and compensatory damages.  Phase two would then consider whether punitive damages are proper, and then the final phase would include the jury’s consideration as to the amount of punitive damages.  

In general, the three step approach leads to a more disjointed trial and is unusually only seen in extremely complicated cases.  Most plaintiffs’ lawyers prefer the bifurcated procedure as it allows them to introduce the punitive elements of the case from the very beginning, but the trial courts have wide discretion on this issue.  Above all else, though, it is important to have a skilled and experienced trial lawyer on your side when dealing with these kinds of complicated legal issues.

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