An Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia jury awarded $54 million for the wrongful death of a 50 year old woman killed when she was rear ended at full speed by a commercial truck. The woman was stopped in traffic on a highway due to an unrelated car accident. The truck driver failed to recognize that traffic had come to a stop, and collided into and came to a rest on top of the victim's vehicle. It was later revealed that the truck driver who caused the motor vehicle accident had been previously issued numerous traffic citations and had been in violation of drive time regulations.
After hearing testimony as to the truck driver's poor driving record, the Atlanta jury decided that $44 million of the verdict would be assigned as punitive damages to punish the truck driver for his conduct in causing the accident. Unfortunately, however, Georgia law caps the assessment of punitive damages at $250,000.00 in most circumstances. As a consequence, the jury award for the wrongful death of the Atlanta car accident victim was automatically reduced to a little over $10 million.
While punitive damages are primarily recognized as a form of punishment for the at fault party's egregious conduct, punitive damages serve another, and perhaps more important, purpose. Specifically, much as the death penalty is designed to deter the most offensive of criminal acts, punitive damages are designed to deter the most egregious of civil acts. For example, punitive damages serve to better ensure that physicians do not recklessly deter from medical standards of practice. Without the fear of an assessment of punitive damages for medical malpractice in Georgia, it is arguable that some physicians may be more inclined to walk the line between proper and improper conduct.
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