For The Record

Georgia bill intended to limit jury awards nears Senate floor debate

By: - March 4, 2020 7:32 am

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the handling of the Ahmaud Arbery case that stalled for two months until the arrest of Greg and Travis McMichael last week. Pixabay

A state Senate panel approved a bill Tuesday that would give businesses more protections from lawsuits and damage awards.

Senate Bill 415 by state Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican, packages together recommendations from a summer state Senate study committee on the legal costs of doing business

The bill, one of two Gooch has filed from the summer study committee, would set up a higher standard to prove a shop or other landowner is negligent for what happens on their property. And it bans suing insurers over crashes involving trucks they cover, among many other measures.

Georgia’s “reputation for the environment, the legal environment, is not so good.” Gooch told the state Senate Insurance and Labor Committee Tuesday morning. “It was rated 41 out of 50 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

It also makes product liability cases subject to a $250,000 award cap, a default amount that’s set elsewhere in law.

“A $250,000 cap on punitive damages exists for all claims except product liability claims,” Gooch said. “Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and are in addition to economic damages, i.e. lost wages and non-economic damages, i.e. pain and suffering. 

“This omission subjects manufacturers to massive verdicts,” he said. 

Ten years ago the Georgia Supreme Court struck down 2005 state legislation that capped non-economic damages that juries could award. But that’s not touched in this bill, according to state Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican and co-sponsor of Gooch’s legislation.

“This bill deals with punitive damages,” Cowsert said. 

Plaintiffs’ attorneys respond that supporters of the changes haven’t shown that they would actually drive down the cost of doing business.

“This is about changing a level playing field in our courts and making it favor one side over the other,” said Dan Snipes, president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.

The panel that approved the bill is heavy on physicians and people who work in insurance. That is, people whose industries might avoid some lawsuits or payouts if the tort legislation becomes law.

The bill now moves to the Senate Rules Committee, which can decide whether to send it to the Senate floor – where the bill would draw the scrutiny of a lot of lawyers, some of whom represent plaintiffs for a living.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008. Her written work and data journalism has appeared in online and print outlets including The (Macon) Telegraph, Creative Loafing and SaportaReport.com.

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