Georgia Supreme Court Changes Punitive Damages Cap

Georgia map, Georgia Counties Map

Georgia map, Georgia Counties Map—gademocrats (Flickr.com)

This is big news for claimants and personal injury lawyers in Georgia and Decatur accident victims.  The Georgia Supreme Court just ruled that the cap on noneconomic punitive damages are unconstitutional.

The Court held that the Constitution guarantees a right to a jury trial.  The concept is that what the jury determines is how we administer justice. (Back in the day, the plaintiff and defendant will have fight, and who won must have been right because, it was believed that the God’s hand would strike the fatal blow.)

The ruling was based on a medical malpractice case that returned a verdict of punitive damages in excess of the $250,000 punitive damages cap.  The case went through the court system to the Georgia Supreme Court.  The Court reasoned that if the legislature could come up the number $250,000, then why could they not come up with the number $1 or $10,000.  This was important to the Court that the jury make the determination.  The Court reasoned that ”the law clearly nullifies the jury’s findings of fact regarding damages and thereby undermines the jury’s basic function,” Chief Justice Hunstein wrote.

The fact that the law permits full recovery of noneconomic damages up to the “significant amount” of $350,000 is not sufficient to make it constitutional. If the Legislature may cap awards at $350,000, then it could also cap the recovery at some other figure, “perhaps $50,000, or $1,000, or even $1,” the court said.

“The very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury,” the decision states.

The other side failed to persuasively argue that allowing a judge to reduce a jury ward is substantially the same thing.  The Court disagreed, holding that the judge’s use is limited and  the “judicial remittitur is a carefully circumscribed power, the exercise of which is authorized only in the limited circumstance.”

The ruling is to be applied retroactively.  This is a huge thing for all claimants and plaintiff’s attorneys.

One question that often comes up with clients is the question about punitive damages in a wrongful death lawsuit.  The answer to the question it that they are not allowed.  It may seem unfair until you look deeper.  The Georgia Wrongful Death Act is punitive in nature already.  Therefore, having more is not necessary.  Check out the page on Georgia wrongful death lawsuits to learn more about that subject.

Important Links:

The Law Office of Joseph P. McClelland handles all types of personal injury cases such as car accidents, premises liability, worker’s compensation, intentional torts and general negligence. Contact my office at 770-775-0938.