Unanimous Georgia Supreme Court Excludes Evidence of Defendant’s Wealth
On January 22, 2013, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled on a question certified from the U.S. District Court and held that juries imposing damages under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-6 are not entitled to see evidence of the defendant’s “worldly circumstances,” i.e., wealth. The question arose during an attorney malpractice trial before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia in Augusta.John Bunyan, Pete Werdesheim, and Joe Kingma represented the defendant lawyer and his firm and, through skillful motion practice, eliminated all of the Plaintiff’s claims for actual damages and punitive damages. The District Judge noted that the only remaining damages were to the plaintiff’s wounded feelings, which are recoverable under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-6. Plaintiff asked the Court to permit the jury to hear evidence of the lawyer’s wealth, while CCS countered that the legislature had amended § 51-12-6 in the Tort Reform Act of 1987 to preclude such evidence. The District Judge relied upon the Court of Appeals decision in Tahamtanv. Tahamtan, admitted the evidence, and gave the pattern jury charge that instructed the jury to consider the lawyer’s wealth in assessing damages. The last testimony the jury heard was that the individual defendant lawyer made more than a million dollars in 2010 and that he owned two houses, two boats, a Lexus, and a BMW. The jury came back with an award of $700,000 to the plaintiff for his emotional distress. CCS filed post-trial motions and appealed. The District Judge held that whether evidence of a defendant’s wealth was still admissible under § 51-12-6 was unsettled and certified the question to the Georgia Supreme Court.Justice Hines, for a unanimous Supreme Court of Georgia, concluded that the statutory changes to § 51-12-6 precluded the admission of worldly-circumstances evidence, overruled the Court of Appeals decision in Tahamtan, and struck the pattern jury charge for § 51-12-6. If this decision had gone the other way, then aggressive plaintiff’s attorneys would undoubtedly seek out wealthy defendants who had “intentionally“ hurt a plaintiff’s feelings and then use evidence of the defendant’s wealth during the liability stage of the case to recover vast riches where there were no real damages. Fortunately for all of those who have accumulated assets as a result of their hard work, the Supreme Court of Georgia took the side of Tort Reform in this instance.