As mentioned in Part I, punitive damages are not available as part of the wrongful death claim. They are, however, available in connection with the estate’s claims for the decedent’s predeath injuries and pain and suffering. Donson Nursing Facilities v. Dixon, 176 Ga. App. 700, 701 (1985). Like with the wrongful death claim itself, punitive damages were not allowed under common law. They are statutory in nature, and consequently, they are strictly construed.
The relevant statute for punitive damages under Georgia law is O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1. A party must specifically plead punitive damages in their complaint in order to receive them. As stated in the statue, the purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff, but to “punish, penalize, or deter the defendant.” Georgia law raises the standard of proof for an award of punitive damages from the preponderance of the evidence to the higher “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard. A plaintiff is required to prove by “clear and convincing evidence that 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.” O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b)-(d).
There are significant differences between a Georgia punitive damages award in product liability cases and non-product liability cases. One distinction worth noting here is that while there is no limit to an award of punitive damages in a product liability case, in a non-product liability case, absent a finding that the “defendant acted, or failed to act, with the specific intent to cause harm,” or that the defendant was “under the influence of alcohol, drugs other than lawfully prescribed drugs administered in accordance with prescription,” or toxic vapor when the defendant acted, or failed to act, Georgia law places a $250,000.00 limit on any punitive damages award. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(e)-(g). When reviewing the amount awarded, although a court will “not mechanically look to the ratio between general and punitive damages to resolve the question of excessiveness,” the ratio is still a valid tool to determine “whether the jury’s award was infected by undue prejudice or bias.” Georgia Clinic, P.C. v. Stout, 323 Ga. App. 487, 494 (2013).
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