The jury ultimately found for the plaintiff against the other driver and awarded her $1,246,000.42. The liable driver appealed, alleging that the trial court erred in construing the Georgia apportionment statute (O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33) to bar her cross-claims against GM for contribution and setoff. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court correctly construed O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33.
Many states, finding that the purpose of the strict liability doctrine is to protect otherwise defenseless victims from defective products, hold that principles of comparative negligence do not apply to strict liability actions. Georgia is not one of those states. In Johns v. Suzuki Motor of Am., S19G1478, 2020 Ga. LEXIS 760, the Supreme Court of Georgia recently held that Georgia’s comparative fault statute, OCGA § 51-12-33, applies to strict products liability claims brought pursuant to Georgia’s product liability statute, OCGA § 51-1-11.As stated in Johns, Adrian Johns (Johns) was injured in August of 2013 when the front brake on his Suzuki motorcycle failed. He sued Suzuki Motor Corporation and Suzuki Motor of America, Inc. (collectively, Suzuki), asserting, among other claims, a claim of strict products liability.
The jury, however, apportioned 49 percent of the fault for the crash to the plaintiff for his failure to properly maintain the motorcycle. The trial court found that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 applied and apportioned fault to reduce the $12.5 million jury award to $6,375,000. The plaintiff appealed and alleged that the trial court erred in reducing his damages because Section 51-12-33 did not apply to strict product liability claims.
In Alston & Bird, LLP v. Hatcher Management Holdings, LLC, 862 S.E.2d 295 (Ga. 2021), the Georgia Supreme Court limited the apportionment of fault in tort cases. As reported in SGR’s Appellate Blog, the Court ruled that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(b) allowed the apportionment of fault among persons who are liable (parties and non-parties) only in a multi-defendant case. In other words, where a case is brought against only a single defendant, no fault can be apportioned to responsible non-parties and the defendant must pay 100 percent of the damages, less any percentage of fault attributed to the plaintiff.
Subsection (a) of the statute focuses on the proportion of fault attributed to plaintiffs. Subsection (b) concerns the fault of non-party entities and individuals.O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 (a) provides:Where an action is brought against one or more persons for injury to person or property and the plaintiff is to some degree responsible for the injury or damages claimed, the trier of fact, in its determination of the total amount of damages to be awarded, if any,shall determine the percentage of fault of the plaintiff and the judge shall reduce the amount of damagesotherwise awarded to the plaintiff in proportion to his or her percentage of fault.O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 (b) provides:Where an action is brought against more than one person for injury to person or property, the trier of fact, in its determination of the total amount of damages to be awarded, if any, shall after a reduction of damages pursuant to subsection (a) of this Code section, if any, apportion its award of damages among the persons who are liable according to the percentage of fault of each person. Damages apportioned by the trier of fact as provided in this Code section shall be the liability of each person
Id. at * 3. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that fault could not be apportioned to the employer under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(c) because it did not contribute to the plaintiff’s alleged injury or damages. Id. at * 6-7.
For all cases filed after May 13, 2022, Georgia has amended its apportionment of fault statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33. The amendment affects subsection (b), which formerly stated that in actions brought against “more than one person for injury to person or property,” the amount of damages awarded, after taking a reduction for the plaintiff’s percentage of fault, shall be apportioned among the person or persons liable according the each person’s percentage of fault.
(Id. at 2). Justice Melton further reasoned that the meaning of Georgia’s apportionment statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33, is clear when it states that a jury should “apportion its award of damages among the persons who are liable according to the percentage of fault of each person.” See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(b) (Id. at 5).
Previously an employer could be granted summary judgment on the claims of negligent entrustment, hiring, training, supervision, and retention unless punitive damages have been pled. However, this case abrogates the Respondeat Superior rule in favor of the apportionment statute O.C.G.A. 51-12-33. The jury can now consider a separate negligence in hiring without a punitive damages claim.Alston & Bird v. Hatcher Management, 312 Ga 350 (2021) found that apportionment does not apply when there is only one defendant in the case.
The Georgia Supreme Court reversed. The Georgia Supreme Court interpreted the relevant statute, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33. The Court concluded that the statute allowed the apportionment of fault among persons who are liable (parties and non-parties) only in a multi-defendant case.