By Jarvis Lakemaker, Esq.
In recent years, Georgia has seen jury verdicts reach astronomical amounts. Sometimes called nuclear verdicts, the amounts awarded in premises liability, medical malpractice and trucking cases are sometimes many multiples of what we would have expected just a few years ago, causing challenges for insurers and insureds alike. For a time it appeared the legislature had succeeded in taking aggressive steps to curb such awards. With The Tort Reform Act of 2005, medical malpractice pain-and-suffering awards were capped at $350,000, and the actions of Emergency Room medical providers were provided some statutorily protection.  However, the method of passage and the substance of the bills themselves were controversial with plaintiffs’ attorneys, consumer advocacy groups, and ultimately the Georgia Supreme Court, which in 2010 found the $350,000 cap unconstitutional and struck it down.
This legislative session the issue of tort reform was once again a topic of debate in a bill,SB 415. Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, the bill’s lead sponsor, said Georgia needs the bill to help curb big jury awards and keep insurance premiums down and businesses open. One of the key focuses of the bill was the protection of property owners in premises liability suits by crime victims injured by the criminal acts of a third party. The bill’s goal was to limit liability for property owners outside of egregious cases where the property owner had actual knowledge of the specific threat of imminent harm.  Another provision would prevent trial lawyers from being able to argue to the jury the monetary value of a victim’s pain and suffering or the value of someone’s life in a wrongful death case, an often amorphous exercise that can lead to jury awards many consider extreme. Another provision would allow jurors to know whether someone injured in a car accident was wearing his or her seat belt. These provisions, taken together with other more subtle amendments found in the bill, would have helped shift Georgia away from some of the more extreme jury awards of recent years.
However, opponents argued these changes, brought forward through the Insurance Committee rather than through the Senate Judiciary Committee, were an overreach. Opponents saw impermissible limits on lawyers’ ability to argue facts in evidence, and feared the bill would act as a total bar to liability in premise liability cases, where showing actual knowledge a crime was about to be committed would have been a near impossible burden for plaintiffs to overcome.
Ultimately, the opposition proved to be too significant for the bill’s sponsors to overcome, and Sen. Gooch tabled the bill after it became clear he could not secure enough votes in advance of the crossover deadline.  Though proponents were unsuccessful this session, we expect tort reform efforts of this type will continue.