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Can you obtain punitive damages in an abusive litigation case?

Punitive damages are available for abusive litigation claims in Georgia.

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently upended several decades of precedent in holding that litigants can seek punitive damages for a statutory abusive litigation claim. Read the ruling hereCall Kastorf Law if you have questions about how to interpret this opinion.

The trial court rules that no punitive damages are available in an abusive litigation case

In the underlying litigation, a plaintiff terminated from a software company filed a lawsuit, alleging breach of a severance agreement and various other provisions in his employment contract. After obtaining summary judgment, the employee filed a motion for attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses under O.C.G.A. § 9-15-14(a) and (b). The trial court granted it, finding that the employer had “adopted a strategy of litigation by attrition,” characterizing it as advancing “numerous baseless defenses.” 

The employee then filed a series of lawsuits alleging abusive litigation. In the operative one, filed in DeKalb County State Court, he included a claim for punitive damages. The trial court dismissed the entire action, and the employee appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed in part, but continues to hold that punitive damages claims are barred

The Court of Appeals reversed in part, reinstating portions of the claims, but affirming the court’s ruling that punitive damages are not available for a statutory abusive litigation claim. This result was not surprising. The Court of Appeals had already held similarly in the past, in reliance on a footnote of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Yosy v. Torok, 256 Ga. 92 (1986).

The Supreme Court reverses, holding that punitive damages are available in at least some abusive litigation claims.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the punitive damages question, and reversed. It explained:

[W]e conclude that punitive damages generally may be recovered in an abusive litigation lawsuit (as long as the lawsuit is not solely to recover damages for injury to peace, happiness, or feelings),1 because the text of OCGA § 51-7-83 (a) indicates that punitive damages are included, the statute did not change the common law generally allowing punitive damages in abusive litigation cases, and punitive damages in abusive litigation cases do not always constitute an impermissible double recovery. 

How does the Coen v. Aptean opinion alter Georgia law?

The most obvious effect that the Coen v. Aptean opinion has on Georgia law is that it permits the plaintiff in many abusive litigation actions to seek punitive damages. But the opinion may also be relevant to claims for punitive damages under other statutes: 

First, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that the phrase “all damages allowable by law” is as broad as it sounds. The strong presumption moving forward will be that causes of action including this phrase permit claims for attorneys’ fees. Unfortunately for fans of punitive damages, this interpretation will not mean a lot under the current Georgia code; the abusive litigation statute appears to be the only current statute using that language.

Second, and conversely, the Court may have actually narrowed the availability of punitive damages under some other statutes when it distinguished a case called Lyman v. Cellchem Intl., Inc., 3003 Ga. 475 (2017). There, the Court ruled that “any damages sustained” did not provide for a recovery of punitive because punitive are not “sustained.” The manner in which the Court in Coen v. Aptean distinguished Lyman seems to suggest that you need quite broad language to establish without an express statement that punitive are available. There are more statutes like the one in Lyman than the one in ApteanSee, e.g. O.C.G.A. §§ 18-3-53 (mention “all damages” “sustained”); 10-1-449 (same); 19-3-68 (same); see also O.C.G.A. §§ 10-1-642, 22-3-121 (mentioning “all damages to” an object or person, which may imply consequential damages only); O.C.G.A. § 10-4-20 (referencing “all damages caused by” an omission); O.C.G.A. § 50-32-51 (covering “any and all damages” but they must be “resulting from” an act or omission).

Do you have questions about statutory interpretation (or the Supreme Court of Georgia)?

If you are not clear what type of damages a statute you want to bring a claim under, engage Kastorf Law to develop the strongest statutory interpretation argument in favor of our position. We don’t just help on appeals; engaging the firm from the start is the best way to drive up the value of your matter.

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