Georgia Court of Appeal holds that lay witness may offer opinions about whether a driver is intoxicated.   

The plaintiff in this case was driving in her lane when the defendant was driving toward plaintiff coming from the opposite direction.  There were several witnesses who observed the defendant driving in an erratic manner.  For example, on several occasions, the defendant inexplicably stopped her car in the middle of the road and when cars behind her tried to pass, she would speed up and not allow them to pass.  Witnesses also observed her running a stop sign.  Soon after, the defendant driver caused a car wreck that injured the plaintiff and her passenger.

A witness called 911 to report that this accident took place and to report that a drunk driver caused it.  The intoxicated driver also did not attempt to render aid to the people she had injured.  Such evidence is introduced to a jury to show that a defendant’s conduct supports a finding that someone does not care about the consequences of their conduct which supports a claim for punitive damages.  The plaintiffs sued for medical expenses and pain and suffering stemming from their serious injuries caused by this collision.  They also brought claims for punitive damages based on evidence that the defendant was driving while intoxicated and based on evidence that the defendant had a lengthy history of reckless driving and that her driving in this case otherwise supported a claim for punitive damages.

At trial, the witnesses who testified that the defendant was intoxicated could not establish whether the defendant had consumed alcohol or drugs prior to driving.  For this reason, the defendant asked the court to throw out plaintiffs’ claims for punitive damages.  The trial court refused the motion stating that the testimony supported an inference that the defendant was driving while impaired.  The court also ruled that the defendant driver’s conduct also supported a claim for punitive damages because it showed that the defendant acted with complete carelessness (a want of care), or acted willfully or wantonly.

A jury returned a punitive damages verdict in the amount of $100,000.  The jury was permitted to hear that the defendant had prior convictions for DUI, speeding and reckless driving.  The jury also specifically found that the defendant was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the collision.  The reason a jury is asked to make this specific finding is that there is no cap on punitive damages in the context of drunk driving or in the context of acting with specific intent to harm; otherwise, in most other cases in Georgia, there is a $250,000 cap on punitive damages.

In allowing witnesses to testify about whether the driver was intoxicated, the court followed longstanding legal precedent which stands for the proposition that a lay witness or an “average Joe”, i.e., a non-expert witness,  can testify whether he believes another person is intoxicated as long as he’s basing such conclusion on his own personal observations.  The jury’s verdict was proper because the evidence of the defendant’s wild driving supported the verdict even though she was not found to have consumed alcohol or drugs.

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