Taylor v. Devereux Foundation, Inc. et al. (3/15/23)
by Charles Jones
The Georgia Supreme Court recently upheld OCGA § 51-12-5.1(g), Georgia’s statutory cap on punitive damages.
Punitive damages are different from the standard compensatory damages because they are awarded for the purpose of punishing or deterring the defendant rather than compensating the plaintiff. Punitive damages are awarded only in cases where the defendant shows an extra degree of culpability, like willful misconduct or a total lack of care of the consequences of their actions. Under OCGA § 51-12-5.1(g), punitive damages are capped at $250,000. Sometimes a jury will award more than that in punitive damages, but the judge will reduce it to the statutory maximum.
In Taylor v. Devereux Foundation, Inc. et al., the jury awarded the plaintiff $50,000,000 in punitive damages and the judge reduced the amount to the statutory cap of $250,000. Taylor challenged the reduction, arguing that the statute violated her right to a trial by jury, separation of powers, and equal protection guaranteed under the Georgia Constitution.
In Georgia, the right to a trial by jury is sort of frozen in time. It attaches to claims that existed in 1798, but not to claims that did not exist back then. In 1798, juries were allowed to award punitive damages in premises liability cases where the defendant engaged in “intentional misconduct.” The statute authorizes a jury to award punitive damages in cases where the defendant shows an “entire want of care”, which is the standard under which Taylor was awarded punitive damages. Juries would not have been authorized to award punitive damages in a case like Taylor’s back in 1798. Therefore, the punitive damages awarded in Taylor’s case do not fall within her right to a trial by jury. Which simply means that the statutory cap on punitive damages does not violate the plaintiff’s right to a jury trial.
The Court further held that OCGA § 51-12-5.1(g) does not violate the separation of powers under the Georgia Constitution. The Court reasoned that the legislature has authority to set the boundaries of judicial remedies and that the statute differs from judicial remittiturs because it does not require weighing any evidence and it applies to all cases that fall within the statutory parameters rather than to only clearly excessive jury awards. Therefore, it does not infringe on the exclusive judicial power of remittitur.
Finally, the Court held that Taylor did not meet her burden of showing that the $250,000 statutory cap treats similarly situated plaintiff’s differently, which is a threshold requirement of an equal protection claim.
In sum, OCGA § 51-12-5.1(g) does not violate the Georgia Constitution and punitive damages remain capped at $250,000.
PRACTICAL IMPACT: Extreme jury verdicts awarding massive punitive damages against defendants will continue to be scaled down under OCGA § 51-12-5.1(g).
HOLDING: The Supreme Court of Georgia upheld the trial court’s reduction of punitive damages from $50,000,000 to $250,000 under OCGA § 51-12-5.1(g), holding that the statue does not violate the rights to a trial by jury, separation of powers, or equal protection guaranteed by the Georgia Constitution.
“As these statutory provisions show, the punitive damages available today under OCGA § 51-12-5.1: (1) are awarded “solely to punish, penalize, or deter,” and (2) may be awarded only if the defendant’s actions showed a state of mind indicating some extra degree of culpability, such as “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” OCGA § 51-12-5.1 (b), (c).”
- “If the type of claim at issue in this case is one as to which there existed a right to trial by jury as of 1798, our Constitution’s right to a trial by jury applies in the same way the right applied in 1798. For other types of claims, the right does not attach.”
- “[W]e conclude that although Taylor’s claim for premises liability would have been available in Georgia in 1798, and although juries were authorized to award in certain instances damages to punish the defendant and not merely to compensate the plaintiff, Taylor has failed to show that a Georgia jury in 1798 was authorized to award punitive damages for the kind of claim she brought in 2017. Specifically, Taylor has failed to show that a jury would have been authorized to award punishment damages for a claim alleging that the defendant acted only with an “entire want of care,” rather than for a claim alleging that the defendant engaged in intentional misconduct. Thus, Taylor has failed to prove that the punitive damages she seeks are within the scope of her Georgia constitutional right to a jury trial.”
- “These caps do not require judges to weigh the evidence or other circumstances of the individual cases. Instead, the caps apply to all damages awards that fall under the statutorily-prescribed parameters. Thus, we conclude that the very nature and operation of OCGA § 51-12-5.1 (g) is different from the nature of the judicial remittitur power and does not infringe on the judicial power as Taylor contends.”
- “Taylor does not explain how $250,000 (as opposed to some other amount) treats similarly situated plaintiffs differently. That is a threshold requirement of an equal protection argument, and the argument fails for the lack of it.”