Georgia Supreme Court Affirms Statutory Cap of $250,000 on Punitive Damages.
03/17/2023By: Savannah Acheson
The Supreme Court of Georgia recently affirmed the constitutionality of Georgia’s $250,000 punitive damages cap under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g) in the underlying case of Taylor v. The Devereux Foundation, Inc. et al., 2023 WL 2519243, softening the blow for jury awards for punitive damages.
In Taylor, a fifteen-year-old, Tia McGee, was sexually assaulted by an employee, Jimmy Singleterry, working at a behavioral health facility operated by the Devereux Foundation (“Devereux”). At trial, Devereux admitted that “Devereux breached the legal duty of ordinary care owed to Tia McGee for her safety from seal assault and that the breach of Devereux’s legal duty contributed to Jimmy Singleterry’s sexual assault of Tia McGee.” The jury returned a verdict for $10,000,000 in compensatory damages, finding both Devereux and Jimmy Singleterry at fault, and $50,000,000 in punitive damages against Devereux. The Cobb County State Court ultimately reduced the jury’s punitive damage award from $50,000,000 to $250,000, pursuant to the statutory cap on punitive damages under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g).
The Plaintiff, Jo-Ann Taylor, the executor of Tia McGee’s estate, appealed the reduction of punitive damages, contending that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g) violated her right to a jury trial, separation of powers, and equal protection guaranteed by the Georgia Constitution. The Court noted that the Supreme Court has consistently interpreted the Georgia’s Constitution’s right to a jury trial as meaning “[t]he people of this State . . . are entitled to the trial by jury, as it was used in the State prior to the Constitution of 98.” Tift v. Griffin, 5 Ga. 185, 189 (1848) (emphasis in original). The Court reiterated its decision in Atl. Oculoplastic Surgery, P.C. v. Nestlehutt, 286 Ga. at 731, 735 (2010), that the right to a trial by jury was applicable to a claim for noneconomic damages in a tort case involving medical negligence, and a statutory limit on non-economic damages nullifies the jury’s findings of fact regarding damages and undermines the jury’s basic function.
However, plaintiff’s claim that Devereux acted with an “entire want of care” failed to carry her burden showing this claim existed within Georgia case law in 1798 and the punitive damages sought were within the scope of her right to a jury trial on that claim. Although plaintiff’s claim for premises liability against Devereux fell within the purview of the right to a trial by jury, plaintiff’s cited case law only provided for awards of punitive damages for intentional misconduct, not an “entire want of care.” The Court therefore held that the constitutional right to a jury trial does not protect the jury’s award of punitive damages in this case.
Further, the Court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that the Georgia General Assembly cannot define the limits of punitive damages, as it has in O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g), which constitutes a legislative remittitur, a function reserved exclusively for the judicial branch, therefore violating separation of powers under the Constitution. The Court reasoned that the legislature has the authority to define the parameters of judicial remedies, and this differs from judicial remittiturs, which are exclusively within the power of the judiciary, in that no weight of evidence is considered and it is not limited to clearly excessive jury awards but rather all punitive damage awards.
Lastly, the Court noted that plaintiff was not a member of a protected class under the equal protection clause, rather, she had the burden of proving that similarly situated tort plaintiffs were treated differently based on the amount of punitive damages the jury awards and no rational basis existed for such a difference. Although, she could not overcome the General Assembly’s public policy reasoning for the enactment of O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g) which was due to the need to punish and deter defendants while also balancing economic uncertainty.
Given Georgia’s recent history with high jury verdicts, defendants and defense attorneys can rest a little easier knowing runaway punitive damages verdicts will remain reined in pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(g).