The Georgia Supreme Court, in  Reid v. Morris, et al., S20A0107, issued an opinion related to a DUI car accident case where, during a bench trial, the trial judge found the active tortfeasor driver liable for compensatory and punitive damages and the car owner liable only for compensatory damages. 

The facts of the case are simple.  The car owner had been drinking earlier with the driver, knew the driver was drunk and also knew the driver was reckless before giving the driver permission to use the car.  The driver was DUI and caused an accident.  Both the driver and vehicle owner were sued.  At the conclusion of a bench trial, the trial judge found both defendants 50% responsible for the plaintiff’s compensatory damages.  The trial judge awarded punitive damages against the driver and refused to award punitive damages against the vehicle owner.  The trial judge took the position that vehicle owner was a passive tortfeasor and could not be found liable for punitive damages as a result of Georgia’s punitive damages statute.  See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(f).

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the trial court, holding it was error for the trial judge to “categorically bar” punitive damages against the passive tortfeasor.  Instead, the Georgia Supreme Court determined the trial court should have made a determination about whether the vehicle owner’s own intoxication impaired his judgment and to determine if the owner was an active tortfeasor himself.  Basically, the trial court should have run down the same analysis it used for the owner as it did for the driver, even though the vehicle owner is the passive tortfeasor from a legal, technical perspective. 

For more information about the application of this case to your claims, you can contact Adam C. Joffe, Esq. You can access the opinion HERE.