An important aspect of Georgia’s Tort Reform Act of 2005 addressed the apportionment of fault among the responsible parties. Georgia law traditionally recognized joint and severally liability among parties liable for a plaintiff’s injuries—any defendant found liable could be required to pay 100 percent of the damages awarded. The Tort Reform Act of 2005 did away with some aspects of joint and several liability. But, how much really changed? In Alston & Bird, LLP v. Hatcher Management Holdings, LLC, Case No. S20G1419 (decided August 10, 2021), the Georgia Supreme Court limited the changes made by the Tort Reform Act.
The issue in the Hatcher case was whether in a single defendant case the jury could apportion liability between the defendant and other allegedly responsible non-parties. In a single defendant case, other parties might be at fault for the plaintiff’s injuries. But, they might have been sued separately, they might have already settled, or they might be immune from suit. Language in the Tort Reform Act appeared to contemplate allowing the jury to attribute fault to such non-parties, thereby reducing the damages for which the single defendant was responsible. In the Hatcher case, the jury had apportion some liability to a non-party, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that outcome.
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. Where a case is brought against only a single defendant, no fault can be apportioned to responsible non-parties. In such cases, the defendant must pay 100 percent of the damages, less any percentage of fault attributed to the plaintiff.
This decision adversely impacts tort defendants and changes where have been the practice in Georgia. Courts routinely had allow the apportionment of fault to non-parties in single defendant cases. This issue may be one the General Assembly will address in its next session.
The decision is available at https://www.gasupreme.us/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/s20g1419.pdf