Articles Posted in Attorney fee awards in trucking cases

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The families of the Georgia Southern nursing students killed or injured this week when a tractor trailer ran over them on I-16 bear a huge burden of pain and grief. As a parent, I cannot imagine anything worse than the sudden death of a child who has had you wrapped around her finger from the first time you held her in your arms.

The families need time, space, privacy and gracious consideration from others to have space to grieve, each in their own way.

After any such tragedy waves of welcome and unwelcome people descend upon the survivors.

First may come the well-meaning relatives, friends, neighbors and pastors. I can imagine that each family’s home has been deluged with casseroles and that parents’ Sunday School classes have signed up to provide meals for the next month. That loving embrace can help one keep going through the early days.

But then, after the funeral, folks go back to their everyday lives, leaving parents and siblings to sit in the departed child’s bedroom and weep for hours in the dark. Each must process the stages of grief.

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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.
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In trucking accident cases in Georgia, one interesting legal twist is that punitive damages are tried in the second phase of a bifurcated trial, are subject to a “clear and convincing evidence” standard and are generally capped at $250,000. But the same conduct that would support punitive damages can support an award of attorney fees and expenses of litigation pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11 in the case in chief under the “preponderance” (greater weight) of the evidence standard. There is no cap on that claim.

Therefore, if a hypothetical plaintiff got a verdict for $5 million compensatory damages and $20 million punitive damages, the $20 million punitive damages would in almost all trucking cases be reduced to $250,000, reducing the judgment from $25 million to $5,250,000. However, with a claim for fees and expenses under OCGA Section 13-6-11, based on violation of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, the result would be a judgment for about $7 million plus expenses, rather than $5,250,000.

Evidence that appellants failed to comply with mandatory safety regulations promulgated for the benefit people in the position of the injured plaintiff is evidence that the trucking company 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 violation of fire exit safety regulations).
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