Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Trials
When you’re injured in a car, truck or other type of accident, the personal injuries you sustain can be devastating. In addition to your medical expenses, lost wages, and rehabilitative costs, there is often intense pain and suffering. In addition to these compensatory damages, a plaintiff may also be awarded punitive damages depending on the circumstances of the accident.
In Georgia, if punitive damages are being pursued in a personal injury case the trial is bifurcated. That means the case is split into two phases. In the first phase of the trial, the plaintiff’s lawyer must prove liability and damages. That means that he or she must establish that the accident was the fault of the defendant and demonstrate the damages sustained to his or her client as a result of it. This is the main part of the personal injury case.
If the jury finds for the plaintiff on the liability issue during the first phase, the plaintiff’s attorney can proceed to the punitive damage phase of the trial, if warranted. This is where the jury must decide if punitive damages are justified.
Punitive damages are awarded to further penalize the defendant for the actions that led to the accident. However, punitive damages are not automatic and do not arise in most personal injury cases.
A jury may find that the defendant was liable for the damages, but doesn’t feel that his or her actions were egregious enough to warrant additional punishment. A failure to establish grounds for punitive damages does not generally impact the plaintiff’s award for compensatory damages—as the fault and scope of the accident has already been proven.
Because of the bifurcated trial system, there is an additional burden of proof placed on the plaintiff’s attorney if punitive damages are being sought. This can make the pursuit of punitive damages very tricky. A claim that might receive punitive damages in one Georgia county, might not receive punitive damages from the jury in another county.
Punitive Damages Are Often Capped
As part of Georgia’s sweeping tort reform legislation in 2005, law capping how much can be recovered in punitive damages was passed. It depends on the nature of the punitive damage case and not all cases require a cap.