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Role of punitive damage claims in commercial truck crash cases in Georgia

As an Atlanta, Georgia attorney handling many commercial truck accident cases, I am often asked about how important punitive damage claims are in these cases.

In Georgia, punitive damages are allowed “only in such tort actions in which it is proven 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.”

Punitive damages are capped at $250,000 in collision cases in Georgia unless there was an intent to harm, which the evidence would rarely if ever support.

I personally handled a trucking wrongful death and personal injury case where the court allowed a punitive damage claim against a trucking company due to evidence that the company “turned a blind eye” to hours of service violations, and dispatched back to back trips that could not be completed lawfully.

Other trucking cases where punitive damage claims were allowed include:

* a “forced dispatch system” where a truck driver could not refuse a load and keep his job, so that hours of service violations, etc., were inevitable.

* payment for speed of delivery, encouraging drivers to speed
* failure to check driving records, as required by regulations
* rigorous delivery schedule with penalties for late deliveries
* failure to provide maintenance mechanics with necessary tools
* failure to discipline truck driver for violations
* failure to monitor the truck driver’s conduct, failure to conduct any investigation into the driver’s hours of service, re-dispatching the truck driver even though he had exceeded his hour of service limitations; and failure to have effective procedures in place to verify drivers’ hours of service when the company knew that hours of service regulations were in place to protect the safety of the monitoring public
* violation of hours of service rules, fatigued driving, falsification of driver logs, and failure of management to adequately monitor drivers’ hours
* violation of hours of service rules and falsification of driver logs

* combination of knowledge of safety issues, speed, use of radar detector, driver’s history of violations, and lack of qualifications of safety director

* Ignore smoking brakes, failure to stop until brake drum falls apart
* stopped in the interstate’s center lane for approximately 35 minutes before the collision without placing triangular warning devices on the highway, and failure to turn on tractor-trailer lights after it became dark

Some of the evidence that supports a claim for punitive damages is also useful in supporting a claim for “bad faith” attorney fees under OCGA 13-6-11, and for simply convincing a jury that the conduct justifies awarding adequate compensatory damages.

Ken Shigley is a trucking safety trial attorney representing seriously injured people in tractor trailer, big rig, intermodal container freight, cement truck, dump truck and bus accidents statewide in Georgia. He served as chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Litigation Institute in 2005, is a national board member of the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice, and is on the National Advisory Board for the Association of Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America.

He has extensive experience representing parties in interstate trucking collision cases, and in the past two years has spoken at national interstate trucking litigation seminars in Chicago (trucking insurance), New Orleans (trial tactics and side underride issues), St. Louis (punitive damages), San Francisco (dealing with insolvent trucking companies), Atlanta (trucking insurance, closing argument), Nashville (use of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations), and Amelia Island (overview of trucking litigation).

A Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, he has been listed as a “Super Lawyer” (Atlanta Magazine), among the “Legal Elite” (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers (Martindale). In addition to trucking litigation, he has broad experience in products liability, catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, spinal cord injury, brain injury and burn injury cases. Currently he is Treasurer and a candidate for President-Elect of the 41,000 member State Bar of Georgia.This post is subject to our ethical disclaimer.