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Attorney fee award under § 13-6-11 is question of fact, not merely question of law

In trucking accident personal injury litigation in Georgia, plaintiffs often assert a claim for attorney fees and expenses of litigation including attorney fees under O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11, which was enacted as part of the Code of 1863. A decision this week by the Georgia Court of Appeals relied on existing case authority that an award of fees under this statute must be based on findings of fact, not determination simply as a matter of law.

O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11 provides:

The expenses of litigation generally shall not be allowed as a part of the damages; but where the plaintiff has specially pleaded and has made prayer therefor and where the defendant has acted in bad faith, has been stubbornly litigious, or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense, the jury may allow them.

“Indicative of whether a party acts in good or bad faith in a given transaction is his abiding by or failing to comply with a public law made for the benefit of the opposite party, or enacted for the protection of the latter’s legal rights. Evidence that appellants failed to comply with mandatory safety regulations promulgated for the benefit of appellees is some evidence that appellants acted in bad faith in the transaction, within the meaning of O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11.” Meyer v. Trux Transp., Inc., 2006 WL 3246685 (N.D.Ga., decided Nov. 8, 2006)(FMCSA violations); Windermere, Ltd. v. Bettes, 211 Ga.App. 177 (1993)(landlord’s to violation of fire exit safety regulations).

“Even slight evidence of bad faith can be enough to create an issue for the jury.” Morrison Homes of Florida, Inc. v. Wade, 266 Ga.App. 598 (2004). “The question of bad faith . . .is for the trier of fact to determine.” Monterrey Mexican Restaurant of Wise, Inc. v. Leon, 282 Ga.App. 439 (2006).

As trucking cases involve a body of mandatory motor carrier safety regulations — federal regulations for interstate trucking and analogous state rules for intrastate trucking — violation of those rules may be used by a jury as the basis for an award of fees and expenses under the “bad faith” prong of O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11. I have had trial judges who were skeptical of this theory read overnight the authorities I presented and come back the next morning to announce that it would be reversible error not to allow that issue to go to the jury.

However, it is clear that it is a fact question, not one that the court can determine as a matter of law. Meek v. Mallory & Evans, Inc., Case No. A12A1290, decided Nov. 8, 2012 in an opinion written by Judge Gary Andrews, was a landlord-tenant case, the merits of which are not relevant to this discussion. However, the trial court had awarded fees under OCGA § 13-6-11 as a matter of law. The court held:

the language of OCGA § 13-6-11 prevents a trial court from ever determining that a claimant is entitled to attorney fees as a matter of law. “Although the trial court may grant attorney fees or litigation expenses under OCGA § 13-6-11 where it sits as the trier of fact, it is not a trier of fact on a motion for summary judgment.” Covington Square Assoc. v. Ingles Markets, 287 Ga. 445, 448 (696 SE2d 649) (2010)

Does this make any difference in how lawyers handling trucking accident personal injury cases handle attorney fee claims under OCGA § 13-6-11? Not really. However, it does stand as a reminder that this is an issue to be determined by the jury, or occasionally by a judge serving at the trier of fact without a jury. It does require presentation of at least evidence even if it is perfunctory.

Ken Shigley is immediate past president of the State Bar of Georgia and chair of the board of the Institute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia. Mr. Shigley is double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the American Board of Legal Specialty Certification (formerly National Board of Trial Advocacy), has an AV Preeminent rating in Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, is listed as a “Super Lawyer” by Atlanta Magazine and “Legal Elite” by Georgia Trend, and is the lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (West, 2010-12). In addition, he is currently secretary of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle, Highway and Premises Liability Section, and a board member of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been on the faculty of trucking litigation seminars from coast to coast.

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