Posted by Christina Cribbs
The Supreme Court of Georgia issued a long-awaited opinion in McReynolds v. Krebs on March 23, 2012. Both the plaintiffs’ bar and defense lawyers were anxious to learn how the Supreme Court would interpret Georgia’s Apportionment statute (1). While Plaintiff Krebs prevailed in this case, it is likely that the future implications of the Krebs decision will be more favorable to defendants than to plaintiffs.
Georgia’s Apportionment of damages statute allows the trier of fact to assign a percentage of the liability for damages to any person who it determines is at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries or damages, whether or not that person is a party to the suit. In Krebs, the Court took on the question of whether this apportionment process applies in cases where the plaintiff is not at all negligent.
The Krebs case arises out of a motor vehicle accident where Plaintiff was a passenger in the vehicle struck by Defendant. Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant driver McReynolds and General Motors (GM), the manufacturer of the car she was riding in at the time of the accident. It was undisputed that Plaintiff was not at fault for the accident. Prior to trial, Plaintiff settled with GM for an undisclosed amount. At trial, the jury awarded Krebs a $1.2 million judgment against McReynolds.
McReynolds filed a cross-claim against GM for contribution and set-off, claiming that the settlement between GM and Plaintiff should reduce McReynolds’ payment obligation to Plaintiff. However, O.C.G.A. §51-12-33(b) states that apportioned damages shall not be subject to any right of contribution. In order to preserve her cross-claim against GM, McReynolds was therefore forced to argue that the Apportionment statute only applies when Plaintiff is at least partially at fault for her injuries or damages (i.e., not in this case).
The Court held that where there is evidence of fault on the part of any defendants or non-parties, the trier of fact is required to apportion damages among all liable persons according to the percentage of fault of each person even if the plaintiff is not at fault for her injuries or damages (2). In Krebs, this meant victory for Plaintiff: The decision affirmed the dismissal of McReynolds’ cross-claim against GM and McReynolds became fully responsible for the entire $1.2 million judgment.
In the grand scheme of things, however, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statute favors defendants. Even absent negligence on the part of a plaintiff, the jury is authorized to apportion damages among the named defendants as well as at fault non-parties. No longer will defendants be on the hook for another’s negligence.
The Krebs decision also addressed a question regarding settlement demands. A discussion of this portion of the Court’s decision will be the subject of our next blog.
(1) O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33.
(2) The Court determined that despite ample opportunity to develop evidence against GM, McReynolds presented no evidence of GM’s liability at trial. If McReynolds had presented evidence of GM’s fault, the jury would have been authorized to apportion damages, presumably lowering McReynolds’ payment obligations to Plaintiff.