Punitive Damages In a Car Accident?
Rarely do automobile collision lawsuits involve awards of punitive damages. This case involved such an award and it was upheld by the Georgia Court of Appeals in Dagne v. Schroeder, 336 Ga. App. 36, 783 S.E.2d 426 (2016).
On November 11, 2011, Plaintiff Sue Schroeder picked up her daughter at school and was driving home in her van. Defendant Emebet Dagne was driving in the opposite direction along the same road.
Bill Maxwell was driving on the same road behind Dagne. Twice he attempted to pass Dagne because she was stopped in the middle of the road. Both times she quickly accelerated and then came to an abrupt stop in order to prevent Maxwell from passing her. After Maxwell’s second attempt to pass Dagne, she ran a stop sign, came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the intersection, and then sped off. As she continued down the road, she swerved within her lane and continuously sped up and slowed down.
Dagne then shifted her car to the left, facing oncoming traffic, including Sue Schroeder. Schroeder turned her vehicle to the right in an attempt to avoid a collision. But she was still struck by Dagne’s vehicle. The impact caused Schroeder’s van to become airborne. It tumbled several times along the ground before comimg to a rest upside down.
Diedre Walsh, a passenger in Bill Maxwell’s car, called 911 and reported that a drunk driver had caused an accident. Bill Maxwell checked on Dagne; she was dazed and did not respond to Maxwell’s questions. Sue Schroeder’s daughter had crawled out of the van, but Schroeder was hanging upside down by her seat belt and screaming in pain. She was freed by emergency responders and taken to the hospital along with her daughter.
Sue Schroeder, on behalf of herself and her minor daughter, filed suit against Dagne for compensatory damages. She also sought punitive damages on the grounds that Dagne was impaired and that her driving history showed a pattern of reckless and wanton conduct.
In the first phase of this bifurcated trial, Bill Maxwell and Diedre Walsh both testified they believed that Dagne was driving while under the influence. But they both admitted they did not know for certain whether Dagne consumed any drugs or alcohol.
Dagne moved for a directed verdict on the claim for punitive damages because no evidence established any impairment. The DeKalb County State Court denied her motion, finding the testimony could support an inference of impairment.
Dagne called the police officer who investigated the collision as a witness. He testified that he observed nothing to indicate that Dagne was under the influence.
At the conclusion of the testimony, Dagne renewed her motion for a directed verdict on the claim for punitive damages because no evidence established any impairment.
The trial court again denied the motion, finding there was a jury question as to whether Dagne exhibited an “entire want of care, willful misconduct, malice, or wantonness” that would justify an award of punitive damages. (This quoted phrase ultimately became part of the jury instructions in the second phase.)
At the conclusion of first phase of the bifurcated trial, the jury awarded Plaintiff $150,000.00 in compensatory damages. The jury also concluded that Defendant Dagne was liable for punitive damages.
At the end of the second phase, the jury awarded Plaintiff $100,000.00 in punitive damages. Also, the jury specifically found that Dagne was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the collision.
One of the issues she raised focused on the trial court’s decision to allow Walsh and Maxwell to express their lay opinions that Dagne was under the influence at the time of the collision, especially when they both admitted they did not know whether she had consumed any improper substances.
The Court of Appeals noted that the admission of lay opinions generally rested with the sound discretion of the trial court. The requirements were that it be rationally based on the perception of the witness, that it be helpful to understanding the witness’ testimony or determination of a fact in issue, and that it not be based on scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge. The opinions of Walsh and Maxwell met these criteria.
Dagne also argued that the trial court should have granted her motion for a directed verdict on the issue of punitive damages because there was no evidence that she was impaired. Similarly, it should have granted her motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the issue of punitive damages because the jury specifically found that she was not impaired. But the trial court did find that Dagne’s erratic driving raised a jury question as to whether her actions showed willful misconduct, malice, wantonness, or an entire want of care as to raise a presumption of indifference to the consequences. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling on these motions.
Dagne’s third issue was that the trial court failed to permit her to introduce evidence of her financial condition during the second phase of the trial. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that such evidence may be admissible, but the trial court’s decision was affirmed based upon pre-trial discussions related to this issue.
Dagne’s final argument was that the trial court should have granted her motion for a mistrial after she was asked about her conviction for driving on a suspended license, which the trial court had previously held to be inadmissible. An objection was raised, and the question was withdrawn. But the motion for a mistrial was not made until the end of closing arguments. According to the Court of Appeals, such a motion had to be made at the time the question was asked, which Dagne’s attorney failed to do.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict and the trial court’s rulings in their entirety. This unusual case of punitive damages being awarded in an automobile collision was in all respects upheld by the Georgia Court of Appeals.