Punitive Damages in Georgia Trucking Accidents


July 13, 2011

Punitive damages are awarded in legal cases as a way of punishing the wrongdoer(s) and to try to deter them from engaging in extremely egregious conduct. Punitive damages are usually only awarded when the person committing the wrongful conduct did so in a reckless manner, with little or no regard to the consequences.

These types of damages are normally available in addition to economic damages such as lost wages and medical expenses, and non-pecuniary losses like pain and suffering and diminished quality of life.

Punitive damages are designed to "penalize, punish or deter" egregious conduct that manifests "willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care, which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences." Such conduct must be proven by "clear and convincing evidence." O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1. In Georgia trucking accidents, punitive damages are often awarded when the driver of the truck is found to have been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Georgia law provides that "An intoxicated truck driver that operates a motor vehicle on the roadways and causes injuries or a death can be held liable for punitive damages."

Not only can the truck drivers be held liable for punitive damages, but the trucking company that employs the driver can also be held responsible for punitive damages when the conduct of the driver is egregious enough, particularly where the trucking company is complicit in the driver's conduct. While determining the applicability of punitive damages turn on the individual facts of the cases, but some examples of cases that might justify punitive damages in a trucking accident include the following:

  • Driving under the Influence: A driver who operates his truck under the influence of drugs or alcohol may justify punitive damages against the truck driver. The trucking company may also be liable for punitive damages if the trucking company failed to conduct a proper employment screening to discover past DUI violations or to take appropriate action when discovering that a driver has been using drugs or alcohol prior to driving.
  • Systematic Violation of Hours of Service Rules: A driver who is regularly violating hours of service rules while covering up the violations by altering the truck driver’s logbooks. In this situation the driver might be liable for punitive damages in a fatigue-based Georgia trucking accident. The trucking company might also be liable for punitive damages if the trucking company is aware of the hours of service (HOS) violations and alteration of the logbooks. The basis for punitive damages against the trucking company is increased if the trucking company openly encourages or tacitly approves HOS violations and doctoring of driver logbooks. This may even include having no system in place to monitor or enforce compliance.

Seeking punitive damages in an auto accident case requires both a thorough factual investigation and compelling case regarding the egregious nature of the truck driver and trucking company's misconduct. The extensive investigation and analysis involves meticulous fact finding which is why it is important to obtain an experienced Atlanta trucking accident attorney. In most cases, insurance companies exclude punitive damage awards from their coverage. This means that a lawsuit must be carefully crafted to pursue recovering punitive damages.

Truck drivers in Georgia and throughout the U.S. are held to a different standard when it comes to alcohol impairment and driving. The BAC limits for commercial truck drivers are actually set lower than for non-commercial motor vehicle drivers. The federal legal limit for a commercial truck driver is 0.04, which is half of the 0.08 BAC limit for other drivers that applies in all 50 states. If a truck driver injures or kills another driver and their BAC level is higher than 0.04, then the plaintiff may have a strong case for punitive damages. An experienced truck accident attorney will investigate and obtain any evidence of alcohol or drug consumption on the part of the driver and use this evidence in his client's truck accident personal injury case.

Until recently, punitive damages in Georgia were capped at $250,000. However, the Georgia Supreme Court recently struck down the legislature’s cap on punitive damages as a violation of the Constitutional right to a jury trial. The Georgia Supreme Court reasoned that the cap on punitive damages undermined the basic function of the jury to be the finder of fact when it came to evaluating damages.

There are many other circumstances under which the courts will see reasonable cause for punitive damages to be awarded other than just driving under the influence. Other reasons why punitive damages can be awarded:

  • Drivers are given monetary incentives to make a delivery quicker therefore drivers are encouraged to speed.
  • Trucking companies do not follow regulations and check driving logs to make sure that the drivers are compliant with hours of service regulations.
  • Trucking companies penalize their drivers for late deliveries.
  • The trucking company fails to perform proper maintenance on trucks especially when informed of a mechanical issue.
  • The trucking company pushes drivers so that they have to break the law in order to deliver loads on time.
  • Drivers falsify driving logs while trucking companies look the other way.
  • Drivers are not adequately punished for violations nor are they investigated.

These are all situations that can lead to other innocent drivers getting injured or killed, and usually it is all in the name of profits. If you or a loved one has been injured or killed in a Georgia trucking accident, we work hard to seek the best possible recovery for our clients, including punitive damages when applicable.

At Montlick and Associates, Attorneys at Law, we have been representing commercial trucking accident victims for over 27 years. If you or someone you love has suffered serious injuries or wrongful death in a Georgia truck accident, we invite you to contact Montlick and Associates to see how we can help. Our Georgia tractor-trailer accident attorneys are available to assist clients throughout all of Georgia, including but not limited to Albany, Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Dalton, Gainesville, Macon, Marietta, Rome, Roswell, Savannah, Smyrna, Valdosta, Warner Robins and all smaller cities and rural areas in the state. Call us today for your free consultation at 1-800-LAW-NEED (1-800-529-6333) or visit us on the web at www.montlick.com. No matter where you are located, we are just a phone call away, and we will even come to you.

Category: Auto Accidents

Please Note:
Many of our blog articles discuss the law. All information provided about the law is very general in nature and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Every situation is different, and should be analyzed by a lawyer who can provide individualized advice based on the facts involved in your unique situation, and a consideration of all of the nuances of the statutes and case law that apply at the time.