What Are Punitive Damages in Georgia?

In addition to the standard types of damages a person can receive, like medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering, in a personal injury case, Georgia law provides for punitive damages under specific circumstances. The vast majority of personal injury cases do not receive an award of punitive damages. In some situations, however, punitive damages can be appropriate.

Other terms for punitive damages include "vindictive damages" and "exemplary damages." If the judge awards additional damages to punish, deter, or otherwise penalize the defendant, because of aggravating circumstances, those are also punitive damages.

An Example of Punitive Damages

Let’s say that a corporation manufactures a product that the company knows is dangerous. The company does not correct the defect, because it decides that it is less expensive to pay the claims of people the product injures rather than to re-engineer the product to make it safe.

When an injured person brings a lawsuit against the corporation, the judge can award the plaintiff (injured person) compensation for her financial losses, like medical bills, loss of income, and decreased earning potential. The judge can also award money for intangible losses, like disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, pain and suffering, and the spouse's loss of consortium.

In addition to these standard damages, the judge can order the company to pay an additional sum, above and beyond the typical categories of damages, to deter the corporation from making that kind of business decision in the future.

What We Have to Prove to Win Punitive Damages

Georgia law only allows punitive damages in tort cases, like personal injury cases, when we can provide the judge with clear and convincing evidence that what the defendant demonstrates:

  • Intentional malice
  • Fraud
  • Purposeful misconduct, or
  • Such extreme carelessness that would indicate a conscious disregard for how the actions would affect other people

Who Gets the Money When the Judge Awards Punitive Damages

Because Georgia law views punitive damages as strictly a means of punishing, penalizing or deterring defendants, the compensation does not go straight to the plaintiff. Most of the money goes to the government.

Under our punitive damages statute, the state will receive 75% of punitive damages awards for product liability cases, after deducting reasonable attorneys’ fees and other proportionate costs of litigation. There is no statutory limitation on the amount of punitive damages a judge can award in a product liability case. A dangerous product that hurts someone is one example of a product liability claim.

Limits on the Amount of Punitive Damages a Judge Can Award

As already stated, Georgia law does not limit punitive damages in product liability cases. There is also no limit on the punitive damages that a court can order a defendant in a case that is not a product liability case, when the court found that defendant guilty of:

  • Intentionally causing harm by acting or failing to act
  • Being under the influence of alcohol when the defendant acted or failed to act
  • Being under the influence of lawfully prescribed drugs that were not taken according to the prescription, when the defendant acted or failed to act
  • Acting or failing to act when his or her judgment was significantly impaired by any intentionally consumed glue, aerosol, or other toxic vapor.

In all other situations, a court cannot award punitive damages of more than $250,000 in a tort case.

Additional Requirements for the Award of Punitive Damages in Georgia

Georgia law requires that we jump through several hoops to have the judge or jury order punitive damages in a tort case. The usual steps include:

  • We must specifically ask for punitive damages in our complaint, also called the petition. The complaint is the document that we file at the beginning of the case, telling the court who the plaintiff is, who the defendants are, why we are suing them, and what we want the court to do. Courts in Georgia are not allowed to award punitive damages if the plaintiff did not ask for them.
  • At the end of the trial, the judge or jury must decide whether the facts of the case satisfy the requirements for an award of punitive damages.
  • The trier of fact must specify the decision reached, whether to award punitive damages or not, using an appropriate verdict form and making all the required findings to support the decision.
  • In cases in which the trier of fact decides that punitive damages are appropriate, the trial must continue so that the court can hear relevant evidence as to the amount of punitive damages it will take to punish, penalize, or deter the defendant, in that particular situation.
  • The trier of fact will then use the information gained in the trial and this additional evidence to determine the amount of punitive damages to award.

Like many things in the law, the rules about punitive damages can be complex. You do not have to figure this out on your own. We will be happy to answer your questions about punitive damages when we talk with you about your case.

You can call S. Burke Law at 404-842-7838 today to set up your free consultation. We do not charge upfront legal fees in personal injury cases.