On June 29, 2020, the Georgia Supreme Court issued its Opinion in Reid v. Morris, a case challenging the constitutionality of the active tortfeasor limitation in Georgia’s punitive damages statute. Partner Elissa Haynes served as amicus counsel for the Georgia Defense Lawyers Association, arguing remotely before the Georgia Supreme Court and co-authoring the brief with GDLA Vice President Marty Levinson.
The case involved a direct appeal from state court following a motor vehicle collision between plaintiff and Morris, a drunk driver. Plaintiff also sued a second uninsured and unrepresented defendant, Stroud, for negligent entrustment. The record revealed that Stroud had no involvement in entrusting the vehicle to the drunk driver, as he was in the hospital having surgery on the day in question. However, because Stroud was unrepresented and failed to respond to requests for admissions, he was deemed to have admitted various alleged facts on which the plaintiff’s negligent entrustment claim was based. The case culminated in a bench trial and an award of punitive damages of $50,000 against the drunk driver but no punitive damages against Stroud.
Plaintiff appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court arguing that the trial court misinterpreted the “active tortfeasor” limitation of O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f) as interpreted by the Georgia Court of Appeals in Capp v. Carlito’s Mexican Bar & Grill No. 1, Inc., 288 Ga. App. 779 (2007). Plaintiff asked the Georgia Supreme Court to overrule Capp or, alternatively, to hold that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f) unconstitutionally infringes on a plaintiff’s right to trial by jury and violates the separation of powers doctrine.
Despite the continued attacks on the constitutionality of Georgia’s punitive damages statute, the Supreme Court declined to address Plaintiff’s constitutional arguments, thereby preserving the active tortfeasor limitation. The Court likewise refrained from deciding whether a negligent entrustor can qualify as an active tortfeasor under subsection (f). Instead, the Court emphasized the important distinction between tort defendants who “act” and those who “fail to act.” Specifically, the Court stated that O.C.G.A. 51-12-5.1(f) suggests that an “active tortfeasor” is a defendant who engages in an affirmative act of negligence or other tortious conduct, as opposed to a defendant whose negligence consists of an omission to act when he is under a legal duty to act.” The Court was careful, however, not to directly overrule Capp which involved a significantly different fact pattern. Rather, the Court correctly recognized that subsection (f) does not limit the active tortfeasor to only one individual who must be also be the drunk driver. There must still be a finding of active negligence (as opposed to passive) to be liable for uncapped punitive damages under subsection (f).
The case was ultimately remanded to the trial court for a determination of: (1) whether Stroud, the negligent entrustor, was “intoxicated to a degree that his judgment was substantially appeared” and (2) whether Stroud’s conduct consisted of active negligence or mere passive negligence which would not suffice for uncapped punitive damages under the statute.
A copy of the Opinion can be found here. For more information surrounding the case, or for questions regarding an appeal, please contact Elissa Haynes.
Elissa Haynes is an experienced litigator with a civil litigation and appellate practice focused primarily on defending claims involving general liability, negligent security, premises liability, personal/catastrophic injuries, wrongful death, and religious institution liability. Elissa is involved in all aspects of the litigation process and has served as lead counsel in trial and on appeal. Elissa routinely consults on appellate matters and often begins her involvement at the trial court level to perfect the record and maximize chances of an advantageous result in any subsequent appeal. Her background as a former plaintiff’s personal injury attorney provides her with a unique perspective and leverage to successfully resolve even the most complex cases.