There are two types of damages that can be awarded to victims of drunk driving accidents.  First, are compensatory damages, which include financial relief for medical bills, wages lost, pain and suffering, and other losses.  Second, are punitive damages, which are designed to punish and deter reckless and harmful behavior.

Many states have caps on punitive damages, including South Carolina and Georgia.  The cap is three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000 in South Carolina (see S.C. Code §15-32-510, et.seq. below) and in Georgia the cap is $250,000 (see Georgia Code §  51-12-5.1 below).  However, when it comes to drunk drivers, these caps mean NOTHING!  In both states, there is no cap when cases involve drugs or alcohol, intentional harmful acts, or prior felony conviction for the same conduct.

In order for a jury to award punitive damages to victims of drunk driving accidents in South Carolina and Georgia, evidence must meet the “clear and convincing” evidence standard.  This standard takes the middle ground between the burden of proof standard ordinarily used in civil cases and the criminal law standard.  In civil cases the standard is referred to as “proof by preponderance of evidence.”  This means there has to be just enough evidence to make it more likely than not the fact the claimant seeks to prove is true.  In criminal cases the standard is referred to as “proof beyond reasonable doubt.”  This means that there is no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime, superseding the belief that a person is innocent until proven guilty.  Both the American Bar Association and the United States Supreme Court support the “clear and convincing” evidence standard.streaming T2 Trainspotting 2017 movie

Georgia also supports a Dram Shop Law.  This puts responsibility on the person or place that sells or serves alcohol to an obviously intoxicated individual who then drives and causes an accident.  South Carolina does not have a Dram Shop Law per se, but in a recent verdict from the Supreme Court of South Carolina, an establishment was held responsible for serving a person who later ended up dying in an accident. (Hartfield v. The Getaway Lounge and Grill, Inc.)

If you or a loved one has been hurt by a drunk driver, please contact The Kerr Law Firm at 843-785-3330 for a free consultation.  You may also email us at info@kerrlf.com.  We would be happy to assist you with your case.

 

South Carolina Statutes

§ 15-32-520. Actions for punitive damages

(A) All actions tried before a jury involving punitive damages, if requested by any defendant against whom punitive damages are sought, must be conducted in a bifurcated manner before the same jury.

(B) In the first stage of a bifurcated trial, the jury shall determine liability for compensatory damages and the amount of compensatory or nominal damages. Evidence relevant only to the issues of punitive damages is not admissible at this stage.

(C) Punitive damages may be considered if compensatory or nominal damages have been awarded in the first stage of the trial.

(D) Punitive damages may be awarded only if the plaintiff proves by clear and convincing evidence that his harm was the result of the defendant’s wilful, wanton, or reckless conduct.

(E) In the second stage of a bifurcated trial, the jury shall determine if a defendant is liable for punitive damages and, if determined to be liable, the amount of punitive damages. In determining the amount of punitive damages, the jury may consider all relevant evidence, including, but not limited to:

(1) the defendant’s degree of culpability;

(2) the severity of the harm caused by the defendant;

(3) the extent to which the plaintiff’s own conduct contributed to the harm;

(4) the duration of the conduct, the defendant’s awareness, and any concealment by the defendant;

(5) the existence of similar past conduct;

(6) the profitability of the conduct to the defendant;

(7) the defendant’s ability to pay;

(8) the likelihood the award will deter the defendant or others from like conduct;

(9) the awards of punitive damages against the defendant in any state or federal court action alleging harm from the same act or course of conduct complained of by the plaintiff;

(10) any criminal penalties imposed on the defendant as a result of the same act or course of conduct complained of by the plaintiff; and

(11) the amount of any civil fines assessed against the defendant as a result of the same act or course of conduct complained of by the plaintiff.

(F) If punitive damages are awarded, the trial court shall review the jury’s decision, considering all relevant evidence, including the factors identified in subsection (E), to ensure that the award is not excessive or the result of passion or prejudice.

(G) In an action with multiple defendants, a punitive damages award must be specific to each defendant, and each defendant is liable only for the amount of the award made against that defendant.

 

CODE OF SOUTH CAROLINA

§ 15-32-530. Awards for punitive damages

(A) Except as provided in subsections (B) and (C), an award of punitive damages may not exceed the greater of three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant entitled thereto or the sum of five hundred thousand dollars.

(B) The limitation provided in subsection (A) may not be disclosed to the jury. If the jury returns a verdict for punitive damages in excess of the maximum amount specified in subsection (A), the trial court should first determine whether:

(1) the wrongful conduct proven under this section was motivated primarily by unreasonable financial gain and determines that the unreasonably dangerous nature of the conduct, together with the high likelihood of injury resulting from the conduct, was known or approved by the managing agent, director, officer, or the person responsible for making policy decisions on behalf of the defendant; or

(2) the defendant’s actions could subject the defendant to conviction of a felony and that act or course of conduct is a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages;

If the trial court determines that either item (1) or (2) apply, then punitive damages must not exceed the greater of four times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant entitled thereto or the sum of two million dollars and, if necessary, the trial court shall reduce the award and enter judgment for punitive damages in the maximum amount allowed by this subsection. If the trial court determines that neither item (1) or (2) apply, then the award of punitive damages shall be subject to the maximum amount provided by subsection (A) and the trial court shall reduce the award and enter judgment for punitive damages in the maximum amount allowed by subsection (A).

(C) However, when the trial court determines one of the following apply, there shall be no cap on punitive damages:

(1) at the time of injury the defendant had an intent to harm and determines that the defendant’s conduct did in fact harm the claimant; or

(2) the defendant has pled guilty to or been convicted of a felony arising out of the same act or course of conduct complained of by the plaintiff and that act or course of conduct is a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages; or

(3) the defendant acted or failed to act while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, other than lawfully prescribed drugs administered in accordance with a prescription, or any intentionally consumed glue, aerosol, or other toxic vapor to the degree that the defendant’s judgment is substantially impaired.

(D) At the end of each calendar year, the State Budget and Control Board, Board of Economic Advisors must determine the increase or decrease in the ratio of the Consumer Price Index to the index as of December thirty-one of the previous year, and the maximum amount recoverable for punitive damages pursuant to subsection (A) must be increased or decreased accordingly. As soon as practicable after this adjustment is calculated, the Director of the State Budget and Control Board shall submit the revised maximum amount recoverable for punitive damages to the State Register for publication, pursuant to Section 1-23-40(2), and the revised maximum amount recoverable for punitive damages becomes effective upon publication in the State Register. For purposes of this subsection, “Consumer Price Index” means the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers as published by the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 

CODE OF GEORGIA

§ 51-12-5.1. Punitive Damages

(a) As used in this Code section, the term “punitive damages” is synonymous with the terms “vindictive damages,” “exemplary damages,” and other descriptions of additional damages awarded because of aggravating circumstances in order to penalize, punish, or deter a defendant.

(b) Punitive damages may be awarded only 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.

(c) Punitive damages shall be awarded not as compensation to a plaintiff but solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant.

(d)(1) An award of punitive damages must be specifically prayed for in a complaint. In any case in which punitive damages are claimed, the trier of fact shall first resolve from the evidence produced at trial whether an award of punitive damages shall be made. This finding shall be made specially through an appropriate form of verdict, along with the other required findings.

(2) If it is found that punitive damages are to be awarded, the trial shall immediately be recommenced in order to receive such evidence as is relevant to a decision regarding what amount of damages will be sufficient to deter, penalize, or punish the defendant in light of the circumstances of the case. It shall then be the duty of the trier of fact to set the amount to be awarded according to subsection (e), (f), or (g) of this Code section, as applicable.

(e)(1) In a tort case in which the cause of action arises from product liability, there shall be no limitation regarding the amount which may be awarded as punitive damages. Only one award of punitive damages may be recovered in a court in this state from a defendant for any act or omission if the cause of action arises from product liability, regardless of the number of causes of action which may arise from such act or omission.

(2) Seventy-five percent of any amounts awarded under this subsection as punitive damages, less a proportionate part of the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney’s fees, all as determined by the trial judge, shall be paid into the treasury of the state through the Office of the State Treasurer.

Upon issuance of judgment in such a case, the state shall have all rights due a judgment creditor until such judgment is satisfied and shall stand on equal footing with the plaintiff of the original case in securing a recovery after payment to the plaintiff of damages awarded other than as punitive damages. A judgment debtor may remit the state’s proportional share of punitive damages to the clerk of the court in which the judgment was rendered. It shall be the duty of the clerk to pay over such amounts to the Office of the State Treasurer within 60 days of receipt from the judgment debtor. This paragraph shall not be construed as making the state a party at interest and the sole right of the state is to the proceeds as provided in this paragraph.

(f) In a tort case in which the cause of action does not arise from product liability, if it is found that the defendant acted, or failed to act, with the specific intent to cause harm, or that the defendant acted or failed to act while under the influence of alcohol, drugs other than lawfully prescribed drugs administered in accordance with prescription, or any intentionally consumed glue, aerosol, or other toxic vapor to that degree that his or her judgment is substantially impaired, there shall be no limitation regarding the amount which may be awarded as punitive damages against an active tort-feasor but such damages shall not be the liability of any defendant other than an active tort-feasor.

(g) For any tort action not provided for by subsection (e) or (f) of this Code section in which the trier of fact has determined that punitive damages are to be awarded, the amount which may be awarded in the case shall be limited to a maximum of $250,000.00.

(h) This Code section shall apply only to causes of action arising on or after April 14, 1997.