Punitive damages in trucking cases in Georgia
Punitive damages are designed to "penalize, punish or deter" conduct that shows "willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences." Such conduct must be proven by "clear and convincing evidence." Therefore, we pursue a punitive damages claim at trial only if the evidence obtained during discovery and investigation credibly supports that claim.
O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 provides for punitive damages as follows:
(a) As used in this Code section, the term "punitive damages" is synonymous with the terms "vindictive damages," "exemplary damages," and other descriptions of additional damages awarded because of aggravating circumstances in order to penalize, punish, or deter a defendant.
(b) Punitive damages may be awarded only in such tort actions in which it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.
Under Georgia law, gross negligence alone is not enough to meet the standard of O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 . See, e.g., Carter v. Spells, 229 Ga.App. 441, 494 S.E.2d 279 (1997) (mere violation of a rule of the road); Coker v. Culter, 208 Ga.App. 651, 431 S.E.2d 443 (1993)(a little speed, a little beer (0.03 gr/%), a little distraction); Bradford v. Xerox Corp., 216 Ga.App. 83, 453 S.E.2d 98 (1994)(speeding on wet road, loss of control, no evidence of alcohol or bad driving history); Cullen v. Novak, 201 Ga.App. 459, 460(2), 411 S.E.2d 331 (1991)(running red light only).
Georgia case law includes several examples of a “pattern or practice” sufficient to support punitive damages in the trucking context. Those examples are not, however, comprehensive or exclusive. See, e.g.,Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga.App. 826, 828(2), 435 S.E.2d 54 (1993)(driver in hurry to deliver load, paid for fast driving, quick deliveries, employer knew of two moving violations, and failed to check bad driving record as required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations); J.B. Hunt Transport v. Bentley, 207 Ga. App. 250, 255(2), 427 S.E.2d 499 (1992)( “forced dispatch” system so that drivers could not refuse a load without losing job; driver required to take truck out again without requested brake repair).
There are also cases with less dramatically onerous facts in which there are still genuine issues of material fact for a jury to determine. For example, in Fowler v. Smith, 237 Ga.App. 841, 516 S.E.2d 845 (1999), evidence was sufficient to overcome a motion for partial summary judgment on a punitive damages claim where there was some evidence that the trucker may have violated 49 CFR § 392.22(b) by being stopped in the interstate’s center lane for approximately 35 minutes before the collision without placing triangular warning devices on the highway, and that he did not turn on his tractor-trailer lights after it became dark and his main truck lights were not on at the time of the collision.
There are no controlling Georgia cases regarding punitive damages truck driver fatigue, so it is useful to consider the Georgia statute in case law in the light of other interstate trucking punitive damages in jurisdictions with similar standards for punitive damages.
The Shigley Law Firm represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and former chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck wrecks and accidents (tractor trailers truck wrecks, semi truck wrecks,18 wheeler truck wrecks, big rig truck wrecks, log truck wrecks, dump truck wrecks.