October 16, 2007
When a drunk driver causes an accident and someone is injured, the drunk driver may be liable for more than just the plaintiff’s injuries and property damage. Georgia juries are allowed to “fine” the defendant by awarding punitive damages. Punitive damages not only punish the defendant for his or her egregious conduct, but they are also intended to discourage this type of behavior in the future.
Last year in Georgia over four hundred automobile accident fatalites were the result of drunk drivers. Drunk driving fatalities accounted for over twenty-seven percent of all the accident fatalities. Moreover, last year drunk driving fatalities increased over seven percent from the year 2005. In Georgia, a driver is considered to be driving under the influence of alcohol if his blood alcohol content (BAC) registers .08 or above.
When someone is injured in an automobile accident caused by another’s negligence, they are entitled to compensatory relief. In other words, they are entitled to be compensated for their economic losses such as property damage, lost wages and medical expenses. They are also entitled to be compensated for noneconomic losses such as their pain and suffering incurred as a result of the personal injury..
However, in some cases, such as those involving a drunk driver, the plaintiff may be entitled to punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded to “punish” the defendant for his egregious conduct. These types of damages are not related to the plaintiff’s loss, but serve to “fine” the defendant for his behavior.
The type of conduct triggering an award of punitive damages tends to be for conduct that is intentionally harmful. Where the defendant has shown a “reckless disregard” for the safety of others, he or she may also be liable for punitive damages. A reckless disregard arises where the conduct is willful, wanton or gross.
In Georgia, gross negligence can support an award for punitive damages. Tort reform laws in Georgia over the last few years have placed some restrictions on awards of punitive damages. However, there is no limit on the amount of a punitive damages awarded if the negligent driver was driving under the influence of alcohol. O.C.G.A. section 51-12-5.1(f).
Still,, the plaintiff must prove entitlement to punitive damages by clear and convincing evidence. The plaintiff must also first prove that the defendant’s conduct warrants punitive damages. Then in a second trial phase the jury may hear evidence of the amount of punitive damages warranted by the conduct.
Punitive damages are insurable. In other words, the defendant’s automobile liability insurance carrier may be responsible for paying a punitive damages award. Greenwood Cemetary vs. Travelers Indemnity Co., 232 S.E.2d 910 (Ga 1977) and Federal Ins. Co. vs. Nat’l Distributing Co., Inc. 417 S.E.2d 671 (Ga. Ct. App. 1992).
When you or a loved one is injured in an accident, the difficult situation is made all the more so when you find out the negligent driver was intoxicated. Knowing your rights early on is crucial. Don’t settle until you know all the facts about the automobile accident, and the recover to which you may be entitled.