Using Punitive Damages to Settle Drunk Driving Cases in Georgia

This week our Atlanta, Georgia car wreck lawyers settled a personal injury case against a drunk driver who caused a car wreck for the entire amount of the drunk driver’s Progressive insurance policy.  This case is a good example of how juries can award punitive damages against drunk drivers and how we use punitive damages to force insurance companies to settle cases involving drunk drivers.

We’ll call our client Mr. W.  He was making a left turn when a drunk driver ran a red light and crashed into his car.  He tore his rotator cuff in the wreck and also hurt his neck and back.  He had to have surgery to repair his torn rotator cuff and missed over a month from work.

Punitive damages are money damages that a jury awards to punish a defendant.  When a drunk driver causes a wreck and injures or kills someone, Georgia law allows a jury to award punitive damages to punish the drunk driver for their actions and deter them from driving drunk again.  Under Georgia law OCGA § 51-12-51.1, a jury may award punitive damages against a defendant where “the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”  In Moore v. Thompson, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that drunk driving “is evidence of willful misconduct, wantonness, and that entire want of care which raises the presumption of conscious indifference to the consequences,” allowing a jury to award punitive damages against a drunk driver.

Punitive damages can significantly increase the amount of a jury verdict.  Even in a case where a drunk driver causes a wreck with only minor injuries, a jury can award thousands of dollars in punitive damages.  However, there’s no guarantee that a jury will award punitive damages.  It’s always up to the jury to decide whether to award punitive damages and how much to award.  We’ve seen cases against drunk drivers where the jury decided not to award punitive damages or returned a very small amount.  A rule of thumb is that the more serious the accident and injuries, the more likely a jury will award punitive damages and the more likely it will be a large amount of punitive damages.

In our case, we sent a time-limited settlement demand to Progressive demanding that it pay Mr. W the entire amount of the drunk driver’s insurance policy.  We gave Progressive 20 days to accept our demand.  We told Progressive that if it did not accept our demand we would file a lawsuit against the drunk driver and seek punitive damages and that any jury verdict was going to be much, much more than the drunk driver’s insurance policy limits.  If Progressive had not accepted the demand, it would have been on the hook for the entire jury verdict.

Sure enough, this past week Progressive accepted our settlement demand.  The threat of having to pay the entire amount of a jury verdict that included a large punitive damages award forced Progressive to accept.

I’ve had clients with similar cases against drunk drivers ask why we couldn’t just go to trial and get a jury verdict with a big punitive damages award.  While we can always try your case, there are several good reasons to send a settlement demand.

First, if the insurance company accepts your settlement demand and pays you the entire amount of the drunk driver’s insurance policy, you’ve gotten the most money possible from the insurance company without taking the drunk driver to trial.  While you can always try to collect a verdict from the drunk driver’s personal assets, it’s usually not worth doing so.  Think about it: would you have the money to personally pay a big jury verdict against you?

Second, it can take six months to a year, if not longer, to get your case to trial.  Your case gets resolved quicker by sending a settlement demand like this one.

Third, you save money by settling your case earlier in litigation.  Litigation and trial can be expensive, with fees for discovery, subpoenas, court reporters, expert witnesses, exhibits and transcripts. By settling your case early on, you’re avoiding those fees and expenses.

Finally, there’s always a chance the insurance company rejects the demand or misses the deadline to accept it.  The insurance company is then on the hook for the entire jury verdict.