If you were hurt in a car crash, you deserve compensation from the driver who caused the crash. If the driver did something especially dangerous, that might help your case – but can it actually increase the damages? Distracted driving in particular is a huge concern for driver safety in Georgia, so will a defendant’s distracted driving increase the damages you get in your case?
Damages in a car accident case are designed to pay you back for the damages you suffered, so compensation usually is not increased for worse defendant activities. However, if the defendant caused you more severe injuries because of their distracted driving, then yes, your compensation should go up proportionately. Distracted driving might also be grounds for punitive damages.
For help with a car accident claim, call the Georgia car accident lawyers at Howe Law today at (844) 876-4357.
How the Other Driver’s Fault Goes into Damages Calculations in Georgia Car Accident Cases
When you get damages in a car accident case, you can break them down into a few different types of damages. The most common distinction is between “economic” and “non-economic” damages – the damages that are paid for monetary harm and other harm like physical or mental/emotional harm. Under Georgia law, these are also called “special” and “general” damages – damages that pay for special, specific harms and damages that pay you generally for the pain and suffering and other harm of an accident.
No matter how you slice up these damages, all of these damages are considered “compensatory” damages in that they pay you back for the harm you suffered. Whether that harm hit you hardest in the wallet, in your broken arm, or in the PTSD symptoms you faced after the crash, compensatory damages pay you back.
As such, these damages have nothing to do with what the defendant did and only how much harm resulted. Juries are not supposed to take how bad the driver’s actions were into account when calculating these damages. However, worse actions usually result in worse injuries and thus higher damages.
Instead, driver fault is only taken into account with “punitive” damages. Instead of paying you back, these damages punish the defendant like a fine, and one factor that can increase punitive damages is worse actions.
When Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Georgia Car Accident Claim?
Under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1, the court is authorized to award punitive damages only under certain conditions. The preceding section – § 51-12-5 – used to authorize the jury to give additional damages as a deterrent to future wrongdoing in any case where there were “aggravating circumstances,” but that rule only applies to cases from before July 1, 1987. Those damages were also considered part of the compensatory damages (for “wounded feelings”). The current rule requires a higher bar for punitive damages and recognizes them as separate punitive damages.
To be able to get punitive damages, you need to show the court that the defendant’s actions were sufficiently “willful” or that they involved “malice.” Fraud is also grounds for punitive damages, but that usually applies to contract or theft cases rather than injury claims.
You also have to prove this willfulness or malice “by clear and convincing evidence,” which is a higher evidentiary bar. Most injury cases and damages only need proof “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which is considered a “more likely than not” or a “51%” level of proof. Criminal cases use the very high – essentially 99% proof – standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The clear and convincing evidence standard is somewhere between those two – often described as somewhere above 80%.
Can Distracted Driving Get You Punitive Damages in a Georgia Car Crash?
If the defendant hit you while driving distracted, that might be grounds for punitive damages, but it is a challenge to get these damages in many cases.
First, you will need sufficient evidence to prove their conduct and their reckless intent by clear and convincing evidence. This usually means having really convincing testimony or having your testimony backed up by multiple independent sources. If the story you are telling is plausible – such as, “I saw them texting right before we collided” – then a jury is likely to believe that. If the story is somewhat outrageous or inconceivable, you will likely need more corroborating evidence.
As for whether distracted driving qualifies as “bad enough” conduct for punitive damages, it depends. This will come down to whether or not the jury finds the defendant acted with malice or “wantonness.” These standards are vague, but knowingly looking down to send a text or trying to eat a big sandwich while driving on the highway are all the kinds of things that drivers should know to be dangerous. Doing these things anyway might be reckless enough to qualify for punitive damages.
Calculating Punitive Damages for Distracted Driving in a Georgia Car Accident Lawsuit
Remember that punitive damages – also called “vindictive damages” or “exemplary damages” – are used to “punish, penalize, or deter” the other driver, according to the statute. They are not meant to compensate the victim. So instead of looking at how much harm the accident caused the victim, you look at how much money needs to be ordered to make the defendant feel punished or deterred.
Punishing a defendant often means looking at their financial status to see how much money you need to order in punitive damages to make them “feel it.” For wealthy drivers or big trucking companies, this could mean higher punitive damages.
For deterrence, you need to pick a value for punitive damages that will stop them from committing similar offenses in the future. Again, higher punitive damages will mean more deterrence – whether for them or other drivers in similar situations.
In any case, punitive damages always go on top of your other damages, so if you can get punitive damages for distracted driving, it will certainly increase your overall damages.
Call Our Georgia Car Accident Attorneys for Help
If you were hit by a distracted driver, call Howe Law’s Atlanta car accident attorneys today at (844) 876-4357 for a free case assessment.