When you are injured due to someone else’s actions, you can seek compensatory damages by filing a claim against the at-fault party in civil court. However, many injury victims have also heard of “punitive damages,” and they often wonder whether this rarer form of damages is available in their case. Punitive damages are not awarded as compensation for plaintiffs but rather as punishment for defendants. And though courts are normally reluctant to award this form of damages, it may be available in cases involving serious irresponsibility or wrongdoing. At Butler Kahn, our skilled legal team is ready to thoroughly investigate the circumstances of your accident to determine all potential sources of compensation. If there is a strong case for awarding punitive damages, we will aggressively pursue it on your behalf. Contact us today for a free consultation with an experienced Atlanta personal injury attorney.
How Are Punitive Damages Different from Compensatory Damages?
When you suffer a loss or injury due to someone else’s wrongful actions, you can bring a grievance against them in civil court. If you can prove that the defendant was responsible for causing your loss or injury, the court may order them to pay you “damages.” The most common form of damages awarded in civil cases is compensatory damages. As the name suggests, these damages are meant to reimburse you for the negative impact, both economic and non-economic, that the loss or injury has on your life. Among other things, you may be compensated for things like medical bills, lost wages, lost property, pain, and suffering. If the impact on your life is small, a court might also award nominal damages, which act as a largely symbolic gesture acknowledging the harm done to you. Punitive damages are quite different. Rather than compensate plaintiffs, punitive damages are meant to “penalize, punish, or deter” defendants. They are also known as “exemplary damages” or “vindictive damages.” Georgia courts are also authorized to give additional damages — without labelling them as “punitive” — in cases involving aggravating circumstances to deter the defendant or “as compensation for the wounded feelings of the plaintiff.”
Why Are Courts Reluctant to Give Punitive Damages?
Courts are normally very hesitant to award punitive damages. Why? As one Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia explained in dissent, “We should not apply punitive damages where the law provides other measures by which society may punish wrongdoers.” Where criminal laws and prosecution are meant to punish wrongful actors for offenses against society itself, civil judgments are meant to resolve disputes between private individuals. To preserve this distinction, courts will only award punitive damages in cases involving serious misbehavior.
What Is the Standard of Proof for Securing Punitive Damages?
In personal injury cases, a plaintiff must normally prove their claim by a “preponderance of the evidence,” which basically means that the defendant’s culpability must be more likely than not. By contrast, prosecutors must prove their case against criminal defendants “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This higher standard of proof is meant to protect defendants from being wrongly convicted of a crime. The standard of proof required for an award of punitive damages lies somewhere in between these two extremes. This makes sense since punitive damages are awarded in civil cases but take on the character of a criminal sentence. The governing statute in Georgia provides as follows:
“Punitive damages may be awarded only . . . [if] it is proven 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.”
What Types of Cases Might Result in Punitive Damages?
Again, punitive damages may only be awarded in cases involving seriously irresponsible or reprehensible behavior. To illustrate, consider the following examples:
- Car accident cases involving hit-and-runs, texting and driving, drivers who attempt to run other motorists off the road, and drivers who operate their vehicles for a long distance despite clear signs of mechanical failure.
- Cases involving intentional acts of violence, such as assault and battery cases.
- Dog attack cases involving owners who purposefully instigate the attack.
- Products liability cases involving manufacturers and distributors who know their product is unsafe.
- Medical malpractice cases involving gross carelessness or intentional harm.
For a video presentation by Butler Kahn discussing an interesting case that resulted in an award of punitive damages to rapper and songwriter Cardi B, follow this link.
Are Punitive Damages Capped in Georgia?
In most cases, yes. To prevent juries from awarding excessive punitive damages, the statutory cap is set at $250,000. However, this general rule comes with a few notable exceptions. They are as follows:
- Products Liability – The cap does not apply in cases involving products liability. However, if punitive damages are granted, plaintiffs only receive 25% of the full amount. The remainder goes to the state treasury.
- Intentional Harm – The cap does not apply in cases where the defendant acted “with the specific intent to cause harm.”
- Intoxication – The cap does not apply in cases where the defendant acted under the influence of an intoxicating substance. See also Reid v. Morris, Supreme Court of Georgia (2020).
How are Punitive Damages Different from Restitution?
A helpful way to understand the difference between punitive damages and restitution is to think of each as the inverse of the other. That is, if punitive damages are awarded as punishment for defendants in civil cases, restitution is awarded as compensation for victims in criminal cases. For instance, if a criminal defendant makes money or gains valuable assets through their crime, courts can order the defendant to give up their ill-gotten gains by paying restitution to the crime victims.
Contact an Atlanta Personal Injury Lawyer Today
Punitive damages can significantly raise the value of your personal injury claim. Though this form of damages is rarely awarded, it may be available in cases involving egregious misconduct by the defendant. The legal team at Butler Kahn is ready to thoroughly investigate your case and aggressively pursue the full and fair compensation you deserve, as well as punitive damages where possible. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation with an experienced Atlanta personal injury lawyer.