This morning, the Supreme Court of Georgia released opinions in seven cases, one of which is within the scope of our coverage. A brief summary of the case and opinion is below.
The Court will also hold a half-day of oral argument this morning, its final day of argument for the month of January.
This case began with an injury from a train wreck but is now a proceeding by a client against his former lawyer. After being injured, Caviness attempted to bring suit against CSX under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). But Caviness’ then-attorney (Holland) missed the statute of limitations and the court dismissed the FELA action on March 10, 2008 on that basis. Caviness filed the present litigation on July 8, 2009 and it was removed to federal court. After striking an expert report, the court entered summary judgment for Holland on the legal malpractice claim, but allowed the claim for breach of fiduciary duty to go to trial.
After Caviness completed his case in chief, the district court granted the Defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law regarding the issue of damages from the loss of the settlement offer, but denied the motion as to mental distress damages, making OCGA 51-12-6 applicable. The jury then returned a $700,000 verdict in favor of Caviness pursuant to that Code section.
Defendants filed a motion for new trial, asserting that evidence of Defendants’ worldly circumstances (including valuable houses and new cars) should not have been admitted because a jury cannot consider those circumstances when awarding damages under OCGA 51-12-6.
On May 30, 2012, the District Court certified the following question to the Georgia Supreme Court:
- Is it proper for a jury to consider a defendant’s worldly circumstances when deciding the amount of damages that should be imposed under OCGA 51-12-6?
The case was heard on October 1, 2012.
On Tuesday, January 22, 2013, the Supreme Court unanimously answered “no” to the certified question. Writing for the Court, Justice Hines explained that the current version of OCGA 51-12-6 “precludes admission of worldly circumstances evidence when the only injury is to a plaintiff’s peace, happiness, or feelings.” Prior to the 1987 amendments, evidence of a defendant’s wealth was admissible, but the amendments showed an intent to eliminate a defendant’s worldly circumstances from the consideration of the jury when an action is pursued under OCGA 51-12-6.