A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of giving a presentation to a group of attorneys at the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association's annual seminar. My focus was dealing with aggravated liability in car accident cases, or in layman's terms, how to best handle a case where there is especially bad behavior from the at-fault driver defendant either in causing the wreck or occurring after the wreck. Outrageous conduct such as
DUI, excessive speeding, hit and run, physical threats or assaults to my clients at the accident scene, etc. may require the award of punitive damages: damages not for reimbursing medical expenses or pain and suffering, rather, awarded to punish the bad behavior.
Punitive damages are appropriate in cases of:
- Driving under the influence - but plaintiff must show defendant was impaired. An assertion that the driver was impaired is not enough. In these situations, the attorney must be diligent and tenacious in tracking down any police video of sobriety tests, any blood or breathalyzer tests.
- Hit and run/leaving the scene of an accident.
- Violation of a federal safety law by a truck driver - many times, but not always.
- Outrageous, extraordinary conduct. Cases have included multiple, purposeful impacts by defendant driver (hitting the plaintiff a second time out of rage), assault at the scene of the wreck, etc.
- Texting/cell phone use - punitives allowed on a case by case basis at this time.
Punitive damages are not allowed when:
- SImple violation of traffic law (e.g. running a red light)
- Careless driving behavior causing wreck
- Texting/cell phone use
These aggravated liability cases require extra work and effort on the part of the attorney. I make every effort to know as much as possible about defendants in these serious cases. That may require internet research, looking at court records, trying to find documents or records which may or may not exist.
With extra digging, I've found some very damning evidence on defendants - which helps my clients receive fair and just results for their cases.
- just because the driver causing the wreck admits he/she was at fault, that admission doesn't necessarily get him off the hook for punitive damages for DUI, etc.. Georgia courts have found that the circumstances causing the wreck are typically relevant to the case, and juries are entitled to know about the defendant's behavior.
- Sometimes conduct before and after the accident in the case can be used to "pile on" the case for aggravated liability. Previous or post guilty pleas to DUI or super speeder tickets before and after the wreck can be used to show the defendant's wanton, reckless behavior.
- Asking for the expenses of litigation: If the defendant has acted in bad faith, been stubbornly litigious, or caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense, a jury may be allowed to award them.