When you go to trial for a personal injury, premises liability, or another kind of lawsuit, you are eligible for compensatory damages to cover the expenses related to your injuries. When the defendant is found to be grossly negligent, the judge may choose to award what are known as punitive damages.
These are meant to exact a heavy financial toll on the defendant, discouraging similar behavior in the future. Punitive damages also serve as a warning to other individuals or entities who might commit the same actions. You can request these in your court case, but you may wonder, “what qualifies for punitive damages in Georgia?”
What Is the Basic Requirement for Punitive Damages?
Georgia law allows a judge to award punitive damages on top of any compensatory restitution ordered by the court. When a defendant causes a great deal of harm, such as the death of several family members or damage to an entire community, punitive damages are meant to make an example of the perpetrator.
Certain key elements to a case can make it eligible for punitive damages. For example, the plaintiff’s attorney can demonstrate that:
- The defendant quantitatively damaged the plaintiff: A motorist who chose to drink and then drive into a crowd or multiple vehicles may qualify for punitive damages.
- The defendant actively committed negligent actions: This could include a company that took steps to cover up or deny their part in an industrial accident that affected many people.
To secure compensatory damages, the plaintiff’s attorney must show negligence with a preponderance of the evidence. To be eligible for punitive damages, they must provide clear and convincing proof that the defendant acted willfully with fraud, malice, or a lack of care. The plaintiff’s lawyer must show the defendant exhibited a conscious indifference to what would happen as a result of their actions.
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What Kinds of Cases Could Be Eligible for Punitive Damage Awards in Georgia?
Property disputes and similar claims where someone is not injured usually do not qualify for punitive damages. These awards are typically reserved for cases where a person’s or entity’s actions result in severe injury or death. Some common examples of these lawsuits include:
- Assault and battery
- Auto accidents, including drunk driving and hit-and-run
- Commercial truck accidents
- Dog bites or animal attacks
- Medical malpractice
- Nursing home abuse
- Premises liability cases
- Product liability claims
- Sex with a minor
- Sexual assault
Does Georgia Have a Cap on Punitive Damage Awards?
Some states institute damage caps, especially in medical malpractice cases, to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits filed. In Georgia, there are no limits on compensatory damages, which are meant to make the plaintiff whole by paying for all their losses. The state does place a limit of $250,000 on punitive damages in most cases, with some exceptions.
The exceptions for punitive awards include three instances:
- Product liability cases: There is no limit, but one-fourth of the award is given to the State of Georgia with the presumption that a faulty product hurts every citizen of the state.
- Use of drugs or alcohol by the defendant: This aggravating factor can relax the cap on punitive damages since the use of an impairing substance is an intentional choice by the defendant.
- Proof the defendant acted intending to cause harm: This includes inaction to prevent harm to the victim(s). Proving this is difficult but usually can be demonstrated in criminal cases or civil suits resulting from criminal injury to the plaintiff.
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Do Punitive Damages Pay for My Attorneys’ Fees?
In most cases, the fees your attorneys charge for handling your case are not part of your compensatory damage award. They are also not part of a punitive award. However, in Georgia, you are eligible to recover these fees if you have been given punitive damages.
The Georgia statute O.C.G.A. §13-6-11 allows for a separate legal action to recover fees when the defendant has been stubborn or drawn out the case, causing an increase in legal costs for the plaintiff.
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Can My Attorney Ask for Punitive Damages?
In most cases, the judge will decide on their own to grant punitive damages. However, your lawyer can make a request as part of the initial lawsuit if they feel the evidence supports such a claim. Your attorney must present facts demonstrating their argument for punitive damages.
There are generally two stages to a trial when punitive damages are involved.
Stage 1: You Present Your Request for Punitive Damages to the Court
As a plaintiff, you and your attorney will file the initial motion for a trial and present your claim for all damages, including punitive. You will ask the judge or jury to decide if your case meets the standard for punitive damages. If you successfully prove that your case qualifies, you will move to the next stage.
Stage 2: the Court Decides How Much Punitive Damages to Award
Your trial will resume and move to the second stage, where the judge or jury determines if the defendant is liable for your damages. The court uses the evidence and testimony you provide to determine how large the award will be. The trier of fact (judge or jury) will consider a number of factors about the defendant, such as:
- Earlier criminal activity, including violent actions
- The likelihood that they will continue these wrongful actions
- Past actions
- The ratio of compensatory damages to punitive damages
- Remedial actions they took to prevent future injury
- Their financial ability to pay damages
During this stage, your attorney can present any additional evidence that has been allowed, such as criminal history or past lawsuits for the same negligence. This does not guarantee a punitive damage award, but you are able to present as much information as possible to sway the court’s opinion on the matter.
How do I Know If My Claim Is Eligible for Punitive Damages?
Because every lawsuit is unique and complex, the surest way to understand if your claim might be awarded punitive damages is to consult with a qualified and experienced law firm. Barrios Virgüez offers free case evaluations to help you understand the potential of your circumstances. We are ready to speak with you and help you seek justice from those who hurt you.