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When Can You Seek Punitive Damages for a Truck Accident in Georgia?

Commercial trucks provide crucial services for the people of Georgia. But a fully loaded 80,000-pound tractor-trailer is also a weapon in the wrong hands. A trucker who is negligent or reckless behind the wheel can cause a serious accident. Other drivers–including other truckers–may sustain catastrophic and potentially fatal injuries. So it is crucial to hold truck drivers and their employers accountable whenever a preventable accident occurs.

In any truck accident lawsuit, the victims may seek compensatory damages to cover both their out-of-pocket losses as well as their non-economic losses, such as their pain and suffering. In some cases a truck accident plaintiff may also seek punitive damages. By their nature, punitive damages are not about compensating the victims for their losses as such. Rather, they are a way for a jury to “send a message” to an especially reckless defendant that their conduct will not be tolerated. Indeed, a large punitive damages award can also send that message to other truck drivers as well and cause them to think twice before engaging in similar conduct.

At the same time, Georgia law does strictly govern when and how punitive damages can be awarded in a truck accident lawsuit. While many states impose no limits on punitive damage awards, Georgia has fairly stringent caps. In most cases, a court cannot award more than $250,000 in punitive damages based on a personal injury claim. In the context of truck accident lawsuits, there are two exceptions where the $250,000 cap does not apply. The first is for cases where the defendant acted (or failed to act) with the “specific intent to cause harm,” i.e., the defendant intentionally caused a crash. The second exception is for cases where the defendant truck driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs that were not prescribed by their doctor.

When Two Tractor Trailers Collide

Of course, before a plaintiff can collect any form of damages, they must first prove that the defendant was negligent in causing the truck accident in the first place. This can often prove more difficult than you might think. Consider this ongoing truck accident lawsuit in Macon, Mack v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., which actually involves a collision between two commercial tractor-trailers.

The underlying accident took place in September 2020. The plaintiff was driving his tractor-trailer eastbound on Georgia Highway 96 towards a T-shaped intersection with Georgia Highway 358. Meanwhile, the defendant was driving the same make and model of tractor-trailer on Highway 358 towards the intersection with Highway 96.

You can probably guess what happened next. The two tractor-trailers collided in the intersection. According to the plaintiff, the defendant was driving too fast and failed to stop at the stop sign at the intersection. The plaintiff further alleged the defendant “did not come to a stop after the collision and fled the scene of the collision traveling west on Georgia Highway 96,” according to the personal injury lawsuit he subsequently filed against the defendant and his employer. The defense, for its part, argued the plaintiff had also been speeding at the time of the collision, traveling at 67 miles per hour in a 55-zone.

The plaintiff’s lawsuit initially sought punitive damages against the defendant based on the allegation he fled the scene and thus created “an inference that such flight was motivated by a sense of guilt.” U.S. District Judge Tilman E. Self, III, who is currently presiding over the lawsuit, issued a ruling on January 11, 2023, stating that the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages was subject to Georgia’s $250,000 cap. Self-noted that the plaintiff had not produced any evidence that either of the exceptions to the cap applied. There was no proof the defendant caused the accident intentionally. Nor was there any evidence–beyond the plaintiff’s mere speculation–that the defendant was drunk or under the influence of non-prescription drugs at the moment of the collision. So while the plaintiff may still seek punitive damages, any award will be limited to no more than $250,000.

Georgia’s Comparative Negligence Rule and Truck Accidents

Another part of Judge Self’s opinion found the defense had proven “negligence per se” by the plaintiff in this case. As previously noted, the defense cited evidence that the plaintiff was speeding when the accident occurred. Violating any traffic law, including a posted speed limit, is proof of per se negligence in Georgia.

What does this mean in practical terms for the plaintiff’s lawsuit? Well, just because the plaintiff was negligent does not mean the defendant cannot also be negligent. It is possible that both drivers were speeding or otherwise acting recklessly when an accident occurred. Under Georgia law, it is still possible for a plaintiff to seek and win damages in such cases thanks to the state’s comparative negligence law.

Comparative negligence simply means that when looking at a trucking accident, the judge or jury must apportion relative fault between all of the parties involved. For example, a jury might look at the case above and decide the defendant was still 60 percent at-fault for what happened. If so, then the defense would have to pay 60 percent of the plaintiff’s total damages.

But what if the jury finds each driver equally responsible? In that case, then the plaintiff would receive nothing. Georgia’s comparative fault rule bars a plaintiff from recovering any damages if their share of the fault for an accident is 50 percent or greater.

Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys Today

One takeaway from this case is that if you are involved in a truck accident, it is never a good idea to flee the scene. It is always a good idea to stop, render any necessary aid, and contact local law enforcement. An official accident report can go a long way into helping prove a personal injury case down the line. And if the truck driver does leave the scene without stopping, a jury could later infer a degree of culpability from that fact. The most important thing to remember is you should always work with a qualified Atlanta truck accident lawyer when dealing with this type of complex litigation. Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys today at (404) 529-3476 to schedule a consultation with a member of our personal injury team.

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