When a driver is “negligent,” that driver can be held responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. Under Georgia law, a driver is negligent if the driver fails to show “that degree of care which is exercised by ordinarily prudent persons under the same or similar circumstances.” O.C.G.A. § 51-1-2. In normal terms, negligent means careless. Usually, a negligent driver made a careless mistake, but didn’t mean to hurt anyone. For instance, if a driver accidentally fails to stop in time and hits another car, pulls out in front of another vehicle because he or she didn’t see it, or accidentally drifts out of his or her lane, that driver is negligent.
Negligence Per Se
If a driver violates a specific Georgia traffic law, courts usually presume that the driver was negligent. This concept is called “negligence per se.” For example, if a driver follows too closely in violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-49, fails to yield in violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-73, or fails to maintain his or her lane in violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-20, the driver is negligent per se.
The concepts of negligence and negligence per se often overlap. When a motorist drives carelessly, and in driving carelessly violates a traffic law, that driver has been both negligent and negligent per se. At Butler Tobin, when we file a car accident case, we normally state that the at-fault driver was both negligent and negligent per se.
When a driver’s behavior was really bad, the jury may be authorized to impose punitive damages. In Georgia, courts may impose punitive damages to make sure that the at-fault driver never does this again—in other words, to “deter” the misconduct. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1. In legal terms, punitive damages are appropriate “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.” Id. One trial judge put it put it in simpler terms: punitive damages are appropriate when the defendant “just did not give a damn.”
The question is whether the defendant knew that someone might get hurt, but did the wrong thing anyway. For instance, when a defendant drinks and drives, punitive damages may be authorized. Other examples of conduct that could authorize punitive damages include texting and driving, hit-and-run collisions, or when an employer knowingly puts a dangerous person behind the wheel.
In this video clip from an Atlanta GA trial, Butler Tobin asked a police officer about how much the defendant had been drinking. When someone drinks and drives, the jury is authorized to impose punitive damages.