Punitive Damages and Motor Vehicle Collisions

Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, three members of a Franklin County Georgia family were killed when Marco Tulio Hernandez-Ramirez, while driving under the influence of alcohol, crossed over the center line and caused a fatal collision. Choosing to drive while under the influence of alcohol is one of the most irresponsible and dangerous decisions a person can make.

In Georgia, when a person causes a motor vehicle collision that injures another individual or damages property, the injured victim may be able to recover punitive damages from the at-fault driver in addition to damages for their medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

The Standard for Punitive Damages

To recover punitive damages, the victim must demonstrate 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.”  O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b).

In the motor vehicle context, this requires showing that the collision resulted “from a pattern or policy of dangerous driving, such as excessive speeding or driving while intoxicated. . .” Lindsey v. Clinch County Glass, Inc., 312 Ga. App. 534 (2011).

What Conduct Gives Rise to Punitive Damages?

  • Under Georgia law, there are several types of conduct that can warrant an award of punitive damages. These include:
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol. Holt v. Grinnell, 212 Ga. App. 520 (1994);
  • Leaving the scene of an accident without attempting to render aid to the injured person. Langlois v. Wolford, 246 Ga. App. 209 (2000);
  • Intentionally using a vehicle to push another vehicle off the road or out of the way. Smith v. Tommy Roberts Trucking Co., 209 Ga. App. 826 (1993);
  • Continuing to drive for a significant distance after it is apparent that the vehicle is experiencing mechanical problems. J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc. v. Bentley, 207 Ga. App. 250 (1992);
  • Potentially, texting while driving. See Lindsey, 312 Ga. App. at 536.

The Amount of Punitive Damages

Generally, punitive damages are capped at $250,000, but when the at-fault driver acts or fails to act “with the specific intent to cause harm, or . . . while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. . .” the cap is removed. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f). This means that there is no cap on punitive damages when the at-fault driver is driving under the influence of alcohol.

If Mr. Hernandez-Ramirez had chosen to act responsibly instead of disregarding the safety of his fellow travelers, it is likely that the fatal collision would not have occurred.

The attorneys at Butler Kahn are experienced in representing people who have been injured by the negligent and dangerous driving of others.

You and your loved one’s lives should never be put at risk by people that are engaging in irresponsible and dangerous conduct while driving. If you have been injured in an accident involving a DUI, hit-and-run, trucking collision, or texting while driving, contact us for a free consultation. Or, call us at (404) JUSTICE = (404) 587-8423.

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Jeb Butler’s career as a Georgia trial lawyer has led to a $150 million verdict in a product liability case against Chrysler for a dangerous vehicle design that caused the death of a child, a $45 million settlement for a young man who permanently lost the ability to walk and talk, and numerous other verdicts and settlements, many of which are confidential at the defendant’s insistence. Jeb has worked on several cases that led to systemic changes and improvements in public safety. He has been repeatedly recognized as a Georgia SuperLawyer and ranks among Georgia’s legal elite. Jeb graduated in the top 10% of his class at UGA Law, argued on the National Moot Court team, and published in the Law Review. He is the founding partner of Butler Kahn law firm. Connect with me on LinkedIn
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