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By: Aaron Miller
The Georgia Supreme Court recently decided a punitive damages issue that could have far-reaching impact on tort cases. In Reid v. Morris, 2020 GA. Lexis 472 (2020), the Court decided whether an individual that simply loans a car can be an “active tort-feasor” for purposes of awarding punitive damages if the intoxicated driver later causes an accident.
The facts are unusual for a negligent entrustment case, because the loaner had been drinking with the driver and knew the driver was intoxicated, unlicensed and had a habit of engaging in reckless conduct. At the bench trial, the loaner was found liable by summary judgment and the driver by default. The trial court determined that both defendants were liable for punitive damages, but the judge concluded the award against the loaner was not allowed even though his conduct satisfied the punitive damages standard. In doing so, it relied upon OCGA 51-12-5.1 (Georgia’s punitive damages statue) and prior case law, which held that, in cases involving DUI, only the drunk driver can be considered the active tort-feasor for purposes of awarding punitive damages. In reversing, the Court noted that, while O.C.G.A 51-12-5.1 does not define the term “active tort-feasor,” the statute does make a distinction between tort defendants who “acted” and those who “failed to act.” The Court found that the text suggests that an “active tort-feasor” is a defendant who engages in an affirmative act of negligence or other tortious conduct, as opposed to a defendant whose negligence consists of an omission to act when he is under a legal duty to act. Thus, in determining whether uncapped punitive damages are available against a defendant like the loaner, the question is not whether he was the drunk driver, but whether he was intoxicated to the degree that his judgment was substantially impaired and whether his conduct was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Based on the unusual facts, the Court found that the loaner possibly met this definition, and remanded the case for further consideration because whether negligence is active or passive is a question of fact.
This new standard set by the Court allowing punitive damages against an individual for merely allowing an intoxicated individual to drive his vehicle could now open up a proverbial flood gate of punitive damage claims. Only time will tell the extent to which this ruling is broadened to encompass additional “passive” acts that may be susceptible to punitive damages.
If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Aaron Miller at [email protected].