Punitive damages are not available in connection with the wrongful death claims following a person’s death, but they can be available in connection with the estate claims following a person’s death.
Georgia courts have consistently held that punitive damages are not available in connection with wrongful death claims because a wrongful death claim “is itself punitive.” Ford Motor Co. v. Stubblefield, 171 Ga. App. 331, 340 (1984). However, the jury may impose punitive damages in connection with the estate claims that are brought as a part of the same lawsuit. Donson Nursing Facilities v. Dixon, 176 Ga. App. 700, 701 (1985).
Of course, as in any other type of case, punitive damages are only available if “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 other words, punitive damages are appropriate when a defendant knew about the risk, but did not care. However, punitive damages may be capped at $250,000 in non-product-liability cases unless the defendant knew that harm would result or was using alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.
As a reminder, wrongful death claims and estate claims are different. Wrongful death claims are brought to recover for the full value of the life of the decedent, including intangible and economic factors. Estate claims are brought to recover for pain and suffering, medical bills, and funeral expenses. (For more detail about this, see the question “What compensation is available in Georgia for a wrongful death case?” above.)