Can A Jury Award Punitive Damages For A Car Accident Claim?
Punitive damages, sometimes called exemplary damages, may be awarded Georgia to car accident victims in rare instances. A jury may award punitive damages to a car accident victim as punishment of the motorist who caused the crash for reckless behavior such as driving while intoxicated or fleeing the scene. The potential for punitive damages is an issue which must be thoroughly discussed between car accident victims and their car accident attorneys. Car accident victims need to understand that punitive damages are not available in every case. However, a skilled and experienced Georgia car accident attorney will know how to perform an exhaustive investigation to discover whether there is any justification for seeking punitive damages.
The question of whether punitive damages should have been awarded to a car wreck victim was recently examined by the Georgia Court of Appeals. In the case of Dagne v. Schroeder, the plaintiff, Schroeder, had picked her daughter up from school in the family van and was headed home. The defendant was driving on the same road but headed in the opposite direction. Witnesses in the area observed the defendant to be operating the behicle erratically. The witnesses were driving in the same direction as the defendant and tried to pass the defendant after she came to a complete stop in the middle of the road, without any apparent reason to do so. The witnesses tried to pass the defendant after she stopped but could not because the defendant accelerated to prevent the witnesses from passing.
The defendant's erratic operation continued. After the witness had tried to pass the defendant for the second time, the defendant sped up and went through a stop sign without stopping. She then brought her car to a stop in the middle of an intersection. She remained stopped in the intersection for a couple of seconds then took off. Witnesses said that the driver swerved into her lane repeatedly. She then came to a stop and angled her car toward on-coming traffic after slowing and accelerating at an intersection. The plaintiff testified she believed the defendant was going to allow her to pass. She did not. The defendant turned in front of the plaintiff. The plaintiff swerved but could not avoid a crash and then went airborne and tumbled after striking the defendant.
Good Samaritans came to the aid of the plaintiff and her daughter. The witnesses found the plaintiff hanging by her seatbelt. The witnesses also noticed that the plaintiff's leg was contorted and she screamed in pain. He daughter was also injured. The defendant was dazed but appeared uninjured. She did not try to help the plaintiff or her daughter after the crash. The witness who called 911 declared that the accident was caused by a drunk driver.
The plaintiff sued to recover damages for her injuries as well as her daughter's injuries. The plaintiff also claimed punitive damages based upon the theory that the defendant was impaired at the time of the crash as well as the defendant's prior driving history. The jury, in this case, returned a punitive damages award of $150,000 for the plaintiffs.
In Georgia, a trial in which punitive damages is sought requires the case to be tried in two parts. The first part involves the question of the liability of the defendant. The second part pertains to the punitive damages portion. During the first part of the trial, the judge allowed the witnesses to testify that they suspected the defendant was driving while impaired based upon her erratic driving which is consistent with impaired driving. The police officer who responded to the crash scene performed tests which showed that the defendant was not impaired. However, the trial judge allowed the case to go to the jury on the issue of punitive damages because there was sufficient evidence at trial to conclude that the defendant operated her vehicle in such a way as to demonstrate a conscious indifference to human life and the safety of others.
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