The state’s high court recently issued an opinion in a Georgia drunk driving accident. According to the court’s opinion, one of the defendants in the case was driving his cousin’s vehicle when he crashed into the plaintiff’s car. Evidently, the defendant was drinking with his cousin, when his cousin gave him his car keys and asked him to drive. The cousin knew that the defendant was intoxicated, did not have a driver’s license, and had a history of recklessness. The driver collided with the plaintiff’s car, resulting in serious injuries.
Following the accident, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the driver for negligence, and also the driver’s cousin for negligent entrustment. At trial, the court found that the defendants were acting while under the influence of alcohol and that they acted with willful misconduct, malice, and wantonness. The plaintiff challenged the punitive damages award he received.
Georgia law permits plaintiffs to obtain punitive damages in very limited circumstances. One such situation is in cases that involve intoxicated defendants. In these cases, the court will permit punitive damages to deter, penalize, or punish a defendant. Plaintiffs must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the defendants acted in a way that showed willful misconduct, malice, wantonness, and conscious indifference. Generally, Georgia limits the damage awards to $250,000, but there are exemptions in cases where the accident resulted from the defendant’s intoxication. The court may award punitive damages against an “active tortfeasor,” but not to other defendants in the action. However, the term “active tortfeasor” is not limited to drunk drivers.