Today, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that a $30 million verdict resulting from a severe hand injury following an automobile accident must be retried. In 2012, the plaintiff sustained a serious injury to her hand when the defendant's Jeep crossed the centerline of the road and hit her car as it approached. In the ensuing lawsuit, the injured plaintiff alleged that the defendant knowingly drove a vehicle that he knew to be unsafe, and that doing so caused the victim's injuries.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit in 2014, alleging that the defendant's acts constituted “negligence per se.” Under Georgia law, violation of a statute, in this case several rules of the road under Title 40 of the Official Code of Georgia, Annotated (O.C.G.A.), can be deemed to constitute negligence on the part of the defendant, referred to as “negligence per se.” Here, the plaintiff alleged violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-8-7 (driving an unsafe vehicle) as well as O.C.G.A. § 40-6-40 (driving in the wrong lane of travel) and O.C.G.A. § 40-6-48 (failure to maintain lane).
At trial, the defendant testified that although his vehicle was operating properly just before the wreck, he experienced a steering problem that led to his loss of control and the resulting collision that caused the plaintiff's injuries. An expert testifying for the defendant also testified that the steering mechanism had been improperly installed.
In civil trials in Georgia, the jury is given jury instructions (also called “jury charges”) before beginning deliberations; they are read by the judge, and sometimes given to the jury in written form. The jury instructions explain to the jury the law that applies to the case, and the jury's job is to decide which facts it believes and then apply its factual findings to the law as provided in the jury instructions. Charges are generally submitted by the parties, subject to the judge's approval, but the judge is also required to instruct (or charge) the jury on “every substantial and vital issue presented by the evidence, and on every theory of the case.”
In this case, the defendant requested a jury charge stating that the defendant, to be liable for violation of the statute prohibiting driving an unsafe vehicle, must be aware of the dangerous condition of the vehicle. The trial judge declined to give the charge but allowed the defendant to argue the lack of knowledge of the dangerous condition and the defendant's exercise of care.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court had erroneously failed to give a charge on the requirement of the defendant's knowledge of the dangerous condition in his vehicle. Even if the defendant had not properly requested the charge, the appeals court ruled, the issue was a substantial and vital issues, and a theory of the defense, and therefore the failure to give the instruction was erroneous.
If the Court of Appeals opinion is not appealed further to the Georgia Supreme Court (which has discretion whether to hear a further appeal) the case will return to the trial court (the State Court of Fulton County) for retrial. The case is Almassud v. Mezquital, Case nos. A17A2119 and A17A2120, March 15, 2018.