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By: Jake Carroll
Georgia law permits the award of attorney’s fees to a claimant where the party defending the claim has “acted in bad faith” in making the contract, has been stubbornly litigious, or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense. O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11. The “bad faith” refers to bad faith in the making or performance of the contract, and may exist whether or not there is a bona fide controversy otherwise existing between the parties. Thus, “bad faith” relates to the making or performance of the contract and not the conduct of the litigation. The terms “stubbornly litigious” and “unnecessary trouble and expense” relate to the conduct of the litigation and may be found to exist where there is a lack of bona fide controversy.
Both the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have repeatedly held that “the award of expenses of litigation under O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11 can only be recovered by the plaintiff in an action under the language of the statute; therefore, the defendant and plaintiff-in-counterclaim cannot recover such damages where there is a compulsory counterclaim.”
However, the decision in SRM v. Travelers overrules prior holdings, and allows a counterclaimant to recover attorney’s fees under O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11, regardless of whether the counterclaim is independent of the plaintiffs claim.
In light of the Travelers decision, claimants should evaluate the potential risk of claims for attorney’s fees from their counterclaimants. In commercial and construction contract disputes, the Travelers decision impacts risk for counterclaims of attorney’s fees based on a claimant’s conduct during litigation, as well as bad faith in making or performing the underlying contract.
For Georgia insurers, this ruling does not call into question the status of Georgia’s insurance bad faith statute, O.C.G.A. § 33-4-6, which is the exclusive remedy for and insurer’s refusal to pay a “covered loss.” Although the claims at issue in SRM were against an insurance company, they involved the calculation of premium as opposed to a coverage issue within the purview of Section 33-4-6. Be sure to follow FMG’s Insurance Coverage and Bad Faith BlogLine for analysis of current state-wide and national trends in insurance litigation.
If you have questions regarding this
decision, or any other construction or commercial contract questions, Jake Carroll
practices construction and commercial law as a member of Freeman Mathis &
Gary’s Construction Law, Commercial Litigation, and Tort and Catastrophic Loss practice groups. Mr. Carroll represents business and
commercial entities in a wide range of disputes and corporate matters involving
breach of contract and warranty claims, business torts, and products liability
claims. He is available at [email protected].
 See Byers v. McGuire Properties, Inc., 679 S.E.2d 1 (Ga. 2009); Graybill v. Attaway Constr. & Assocs., 802 S.E.2d 91 (Ga. Ct. App. 2017) (attorney’s fees not permitted on compulsory counterclaim);Singh v. Sterling United, Inc., 756 S.E.2d 728 (Ga. Ct. App. 2014); Sanders v. Brown, 571 S.E.2d 532 (Ga. Ct. App. 2002).