Punitive Damages: What You Need to Know

If you’ve been injured in an accident, you know how disruptive it can be. Medical bills, lost wages, property damage, and physical therapy all cost you time and money. People wind up hiring a lawyer because they want to seek compensation for these losses. If you prevail in your case, the jury will typically award compensatory damages – a money judgment calculated to cover your losses. But are you entitled to more?  

A common question we get from our clients is whether or not they can receive punitive damages. This post explains what they are and when punitive damages are available.   

What Are Punitive Damages?  

Punitive damages are damages that are awarded in addition to compensatory damages and are intended to punish the at-fault party. They are typically only applied in cases where the defendant’s behavior was not simply negligent, but outrageous. The intent is to protect society’s interests and deter similar behavior in the future.  

Legislative Limits

Punitive damages are somewhat controversial. Many corporate defendants, and especially the insurance industry, consider punitive damages to be nothing more than a windfall. In their view, punitive damages allow plaintiffs to recover far more than they are entitled to and is akin to hitting the lottery. As a result, many states have limited when punitive damages can be applied and the amounts that can be awarded.

Georgia Ceiling on Punitive Damages

As a preliminary matter, it’s interesting to note that Georgia law expressly states that, “Punitive damages shall be awarded not as compensation to a plaintiff but solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant.” The same law then goes on to limit punitive damages to $250,000.00, with three very important exceptions:  

  1. Product liability cases;
  2. Cases where the defendant intended to harm the injured person; and
  3. Cases where the defendant caused injury due to being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Unless your case falls into one of those three exceptions, you are limited to $250,000.00 in punitive damages for your injuries. Again, these punitive damages would be awarded in addition to your compensatory damages.  

Types of Cases Where Punitive Damages Can Be Sought

However, not every personal injury case will have punitive damages available. Under Georgia law, punitive damages are limited to cases where it can be proved by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant’s conduct falls into one of the following categories:

  • Willful misconduct;
  • Malice;
  • Fraud;
  • Wantonness;
  • Oppression; or
  • Reckless to the point of “conscious indifference to consequences.”

It’s important to note that “clear and convincing” is a higher standard of evidence than is usually applied in personal injury cases. It might be a challenge to prove that your case meets the standards required by Georgia law to qualify for punitive damages.

An example of a case where punitive damages may be sought would be if someone intentionally drove their car the wrong way down the freeway and got into a car accident. If they were drunk, you may also be able to avoid the $250,000.00 limit on punitive damages. However, you probably cannot seek punitive damages where the person caused an accident due to simple negligence, such as failing to look both ways before entering the intersection.  

Slappey & Sadd – Atlanta Area Personal Injury Attorneys

If you’ve been hurt in an accident, it’s important to understand your rights. The attorneys at Slappey & Sadd can evaluate your case, explain your options, and help you decide how to proceed. Call us at 404-255-6677 to schedule a free consultation today. You can also email us via our online contact form.

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