Total State Verdicts: $4,179,475,521
Total Federal Verdicts: $246,966,885
Top Sub-Industries: Automobiles, Security & Alarm Services, Multi-Line Insurance, Marine
In Georgia, Nuclear Verdicts Are Increasing in Size and Frequency, Mainly in State Courts
Local Factors Influencing State Court Verdicts Include 2017 Supreme Court Ruling On Landlord Liability As Well As Local Law Allowing Plaintiffs’ Attorneys To Argue For “The Worth or Monetary Value Of Pain And Suffering” To Juries
Georgia Supreme Court Expected to Decide on Constitutionality of Punitive Damages Cap in 2023, Which May Further Increase Nuclear Verdicts
Legal Services Ads in Georgia Increased 38% From 2016 to 2020
Unfavorable Litigation Finance Jurisdiction
In Georgia state courts, nuclear verdicts against corporations have been increasing in both amount awarded and frequency, and peaked in 2022. Georgia’s four largest identified nuclear verdicts arrived after 2018 – all ordered by state court juries – while 72% of all identified verdicts since the Great Recession arrived after 2015. These trends led the American Tort Reform Foundation to rank Georgia at the top of its list of “Judicial Hellholes” in 2022,displacing California.
On the federal level, nearly all corporate nuclear verdicts (91%) were ordered by juries in the Northern District, with locations in Atlanta, Gainesville, Newnan, and Rome. The Atlanta division of this court comprises some of Georgia’s most populous areas, including Cobb, DeKalb, and Fulton counties.
Nuclear verdicts in state courts are spread throughout Georgia, with Gwinnett (40%) and Clayton counties (22%) ranking at the top due to outlier verdicts of $1.7 billion and $1 billion, respectively. Other top counties include Muscogee (9.8%), DeKalb (5.6%), Rabun (4.5%), Decatur (3.4%), and Fulton (3.3%).
Overall, nuclear verdicts in Georgia are largely dominated by motor vehicle (47%), worker/workplace negligence or safety (23%), products liability (12%) and premises liability (8%).
Premises Liability Verdicts On the Rise Following 2017 Supreme Court Ruling
On the state level, several of Georgia’s recent verdicts followed the state Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in Martin v. Six Flags Over Georgia II, L.P., which found that a landlord can be held responsible for damages caused by criminal activity even when the damages occur beyond the four corners of their property.
Martin v. Six Flags stemmed from a violent 2007 beating incident outside a Six Flags in Marietta that left a teenager permanently brain damaged, and which resulted in a $35 million verdict. In its ruling upholding the verdict, the Supreme Court concluded that because the attack that caused the teenager’s injuries began while both he and the assailants were on Six Flags property, Six Flags’ liability was not extinguished solely because he stepped outside the property’s boundaries while attempting to distance himself from the attackers.
Following this ruling, several nuclear verdicts were ordered in similar cases, all in 2019. These include an $81 million verdict against supermarket chain Kroger for a shooting in one of its stores’ parking lots in DeKalb County. In that case, the plaintiff’s attorney argued that Kroger knew the store was located in an unsafe and high-crime area, and yet failed to place security guards in its lot. A similar $45 million verdict was ordered against CVS by a Fulton County jury, following a parking lot robbery attempt. In another case, a Muscogee County jury ordered $125 million in Thornton v. Ralston GA LLC, including $50 million in punitive damages, against an apartment complex accused of causing a tenant’s death due to poor living conditions.
According to the US Chamber of Commerce, despite its large sum of nuclear verdicts, Georgia is below other states in that 19% of its nuclear verdicts included punitive damages, compared to 26% nationally.
However, other local factors have contributed to Georgia’s sky-high verdict totals in state courts. Georgia is one of few states with a local law permitting plaintiff’s attorneys in civil actions to argue for “the worth or monetary value of pain and suffering” to the jury, no matter how large. This has allowed anchoring tactics to thrive, such as in Taylor v. Kroger Co. (2019), in which the plaintiff’s lawyer asked for $80 million in damages and the jury awarded $81 million.
The Future of Punitive Damages in Georgia
In 2023, the Georgia Supreme Court is expected to determine the constitutionality of the state’s punitive damages cap in an appeal of Taylor v. Devereux Foundation. In that case, a Cobb County jury ordered the nonprofit behavioral health organization Devereux to pay a former patient $7.6 million following allegations that it failed to protect against sexual abuse in its facility. While the initial verdict included $50 million in punitive damages, the trial court reduced this award to $250,000 to meet the maximum permitted by Georgia law in non-product liability cases.
Georgia’s statutory cap on punitive damages was passed by the General Assembly in 1987 and has been upheld twice by the state Supreme Court. Other leading states for nuclear verdicts, such as California, have no cap on punitive awards. Taylor v. Devereux Foundation is therefore a key case to watch in 2023.
Legal Services Advertising
According to the ATR Foundation and Kantar, between 2016 and 2020, spending on local advertisements for legal services and/or soliciting legal claims in Georgia increased by 41% while the quantity of ads increased by 38%.
Litigation Finance-Unfavorable Jurisdiction
Despite its increasing nuclear verdicts, Georgia has been identified by the American Transport Research Institute as among the five least attractive states for investing in litigation. This is due to the high risk that a litigation financing agreement would be invalidated under state law, and a moderate risk that such an agreement would be subject to usury law. Georgia law includes a variety of rules that prohibit litigation finance contracts, including a statute that defines “contracts of maintenance or champerty” as void. The state also has a more inclusive definition of usury than other jurisdictions – case law provides that a transaction may be usurious when the parties agree to a rate of interest that is above the legal limit.
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Corporate Verdicts Go Thermonuclear
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