A Guide to Compensatory vs. Punitive Damages in Georgia

A Guide to Compensatory vs Punitive Damages in Georgia

Understanding the Differences Between Compensatory & Punitive Damages

For most civil claims, the goal is to get the victim compensation for losses that occur due to the actions of the at-fault party. In the majority of these cases, such as car crashes, the purpose is not to punish the at-fault party, but instead to make the victim whole. There are, however, some instances when the severity of the actions of the at-fault party do warrant punishment. What are these different types of damages, and how are they different?

Read on to learn everything you need to know about compensatory damages, punitive damages, the differences between the two, and when they are awarded as compensation to the injured party.

What Are Compensatory Damages?

The State of Georgia defines compensatory damages as damages given as compensation for injury — more specifically the measure of damages where an injury is of a character capable of being estimated in money. Think of compensatory damages as the at-fault party paying for the value of the harm they have caused.

In a personal injury case, the objective is to get fair and just compensation. Compensatory damages are split into two categories: special damages, based on actual expenses incurred by the victim (medical bills and lost wages or loss of earnings), and general damages, expenses based on more subjective losses (physical pain and suffering as well as mental pain and suffering. Sometimes, mental pain and suffering includes the value for the loss of capacity to labor). When deciding the sum of compensatory damages, a judge or jury may consider factors including:

  • Hospital bills
  • Property damage
  • Decreased ability to enjoy life
  • Lost income
  • Use of PTO days
  • Emotional distress

What Are Punitive Damages?

Synonymous with “vindictive damages” and “exemplary damages,” the State of Georgia defines punitive damages as “additional damages awarded because of aggravating circumstances in order to penalize, punish, or deter a defendant [also referred to as the at-fault party].”

These 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,” and are “awarded not as compensation to a plaintiff but solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant.”

The injured party would be entitled to seek compensatory damages for his or her losses as well as entitled to seek punitive damages because of the egregious conduct of the at-fault party. Some examples of cases where punitive damages may be warranted are as follows:

Compensatory vs. Punitive Damages

Compensatory damages and punitive damages are not the same thing. Let’s parse out how they’re similar, alongside what makes them distinct from each other.

What Are the Similarities Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages?

Compensatory damages and punitive damages often occur in the same types of cases — including personal injury cases and premises liability cases. Take a case such as a car accident where the driver was under the influence of alcohol. The injured party would be entitled to seek compensatory damages for his or her losses, as well as entitled to seek punitive damages because of the egregious conduct of the at-fault party.

What is the Difference Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages?

Compensatory damages compensate the injured party for his or her losses. Fair and just compensation means that the injured party is entitled to be made whole for his or her losses.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, are awarded to punish the at-fault party for his or her actions. They are also awarded in hopes of deterring similar behavior in the future.

Additionally, punitive damages have a higher burden of proof than a typical negligence case. While a standard negligence case requires a preponderance of evidence, to get punitive damages one must show clear and convincing evidence.

Is There A Limit on Compensatory Damages? Is There A Limit On Punitive Damages?

In Georgia there is no limit to how much a judge or jury can award for compensatory damages as long as the amount reflects quantifiable and actual losses.

In Georgia, under Georgia Statute § 51-12-5.1, there is a $250,000 cap on punitive damages. In many cases, this means that even if a jury awards more money for punitive damages, the judge will reduce the punitive damages award to $250,000.00. There are exceptions to this rule which are set forth below.

Georgia law states that in cases where the cause of the suit is product liability, an action where the defendant intended to harm, or the defendant’s action or failure to act occurred under the influence of any non-prescribed substance, including alcohol, drugs, aerosols and glue, there is no limit on the punitive damages.

Who Ultimately Pays if Compensatory Damages or Punitive Damages Are Awarded?

This is a complex question that varies case to case.  For example, when assessing compensatory damages in a car wreck case, you may look to the at fault driver’s insurance, insurance for any resident relatives of the at-fault party, your own underinsured motorist coverage and if the person who caused the wreck was driving for work at the time, his or her employer’s insurance.

The above insurance carriers may also pay any punitive damages that are awarded. Many times, however, an intentional act is not covered — in which case you may have to look to the personal assets of the at-fault party.

Please understand that the above is merely a general discussion and is not legal advice. If you have suffered serious injuries, then you are strongly advised to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney.

Apolinsky & Associates, LLC is a Georgia based personal injury law firm that also practices law in Alabama. With over 50 years of combined experience, its lawyers represent individuals who have suffered catastrophic injuries or their families when someone died because of the negligence of others. To learn more about what compensation might be available, contact us today to schedule your appointment for a free consultation.


About the Author

Stephen Apolinsky

Stephen D. Apolinsky is a Personal Injury Attorney who specializes in representing individuals and families concerning wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases. Stephen is licensed to practice in Georgia, Alabama, and the District of Columbia. With over 33 years of experience representing personal injury victims, Stephen has successfully tried over 80 cases to verdict before judges or juries, and has negotiated over 300 cases to out-of-court settlements. Stephen has been recognized as a Georgia Super Lawyer, and as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Association.