McKnight v. Love

Georgia Court of Appeals Addresses Standard for Punitive Damages and Section 13-6-11 Fees and Expenses in Rear-End Crash With Cell Phone Usage


In November 2019, Anthony Love was driving behind John McKnight on Interstate 20 in DeKalb County, Georgia in stop-and-go traffic. As traffic slowed and came to a stop, McKnight applied his brakes and came to a stop as well. Unfortunately, Love did not, and he crashed into the back of McKnight. Just before impact, McKnight looked into his rearview mirror and saw Love “coming pretty fast.” McKnight presumed Love was distracted. Love was cited for following too closely, and he pleaded guilty to that charge.

McKnight filed suit to recover for his injuries and included claims for punitive damages and fees and expenses under O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11. The § 13-6-11 claim was based on the allegation Love had been stubbornly litigious and acted in bad faith. During the lawsuit, evidence showed that Love made, and received, numerous phone calls on his cell phone in his vehicle before the wreck. Love’s vehicle did not have hands-free cell phone technology. 

Love moved for partial summary judgment on McKnight’s punitive damages and § 13-6-11 claims. The trial court granted summary judgment on the punitives claim, and the § 13-6-11 claim based on stubborn litigiousness. However, it denied summary judgment for bad faith damages under § 13-6-11. The parties appealed the rulings.

Issues & Holdings

  1. Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment on the punitive damages claim?
  2. Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment on the § 13-6-11 claim for stubborn litigiousness?
  3. Did the trial court err in denying summary judgment on the § 13-6-11 claim for bad faith damages?

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court on each of the three issues. The Court of Appeals held that summary judgment was proper on the punitive damages claim and § 13-6-11 claim for stubborn litigiousness, but that Love was not entitled to summary judgment on the claim for bad faith under § 13-6-11. 


1. Punitive Damages Claim

After discussing a brief history of the punitive damages standard in Georgia, the Court of Appeals analyzed the current statutory language in the punitive damages statute. Under the statute, punitive damages are only recoverable where the plaintiff has shown by clear and convincing evidence that “the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b). The question on summary judgment then is whether the plaintiff has shown that a jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s conduct rose to one of those levels.

Applying that standard to the facts before it, the Court of Appeals held that punitive damages were not warranted. The Court of Appeals noted that prior decisions had routinely held that punitive damages were not authorized in vehicle collision cases “when a driver simply violates a rule of the road.” On the other hand, punitive damages were generally recoverable when the collision resulted from a “pattern or policy of dangerous driving.” The reason that cases had focused on a pattern and policy of dangerous driving was because that pattern could show the defendant acted with an entire want of care and a conscious indifference to the consequences.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals did point out that a pattern or policy of dangerous driving is not the only way to recover punitive damages in a vehicle collision case. The Court of Appeals cited to other examples where punitive damages were recoverable, including where a defendant drove 10 to 20 miles knowing that the vehicle had a serious mechanical problem, J.B. Hunt Transport v. Bentley, 207 Ga. App. 250 (1992); hit and runs, e.g. Langlois v. Woldford, 246 Ga. App. 209 (2000); a collision caused by a truck that stopped in the middle of the interstate for 30 minutes without putting out its warning devices or turning its lights on after dark, Fowler v. Smith, 237 Ga. App. 841 (1999); and a wrong-way collision where a driver hit a pedestrian while driving at an excessive speed, Bales v. Wright, 59 Ga. App. 191 (1938).

In this case, the Court of Appeals concluded that there was no evidence that Love had a pattern or policy of dangerous driving or causing wrecks while using a cell phone. At most, the evidence showed that Love rear-ended MckNight while following too closely and driving 25 to 35 miles per hour in a 65-mile-per-hour zone while making and receiving cell phone calls continuously. The Court of Appeals determined that this case fit within the line of cases where the driver violated a rule of the road and punitive damages could not be recovered.

2. Stubborn Litigiousness Claim

O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11 allows a plaintiff to recover attorney’s fees and expenses of litigation when the defendant “has acted in bad faith, has been stubbornly litigious, or has caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense.” On the stubborn litigiousness standard, the Court of Appeals stated that the standard would not be met where “a bona fide controversy between the parties.” Here, while there was clearly evidence Love was negligent, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the standard was not met because there was a bona fide controversy on causation and damages. Specifically, Love disputed that the wreck caused any injuries to McKnight and the extent of those injuries.

3. Bad Faith Claim

Bad faith can also entitle a plaintiff to fees and expenses under § 13-6-11. The bad faith here does not refer to conduct in the litigation itself. Rather, it refers to bad faith in the underlying event giving rise to the claim–here, the rear-end collision. The bad faith standard is lower than the punitive damages standard. Thus, while certain basic rules of the road violations may not allow punitive damages, they may permit recovery of fees and expenses under this statute. 

Here, the Court of Appeals cited other cases finding genuine issues of fact on bad faith where the defendant-driver violated rules of the road. And in this case, there was the evidence of cell phone usage and evidence that the defendant was following too closely. Based on there being issues of fact as to multiple potential violations of state traffic laws, the Court of Appeals held that Love was not entitled to summary judgment on the claim for bad faith damages.


This case is a good summary of the applicable law for punitive damages and § 13-6-11 damages for routine road wreck cases. It is important to be aware of the standard, to know what damages to plead, and to know what evidence to gather to support the claim. This case shows that basic, routine rules of the road violations will not give rise to punitive damages. But it also shows that a pattern or policy of dangerous driving might do so. As a result, make sure to do discovery on your defendant-driver’s history. Do they have other citations? Other wrecks? Or is there other evidence of a pattern of dangerous driving? 

Even if there is not a pattern or policy of dangerous driving, this case makes it clear that is not the only way to recover punitive damages arising out of a vehicle collision. Do research to see if the facts of your case are analogous to other prior decisions that have allowed these damages where there was not a pattern or policy of dangerous driving. Ask appropriately tailored deposition questions to demonstrate the defendant’s knowledge and awareness of how dangerous their conduct was at the time of the wreck.

For § 13-6-11, this claim should at least be investigated and considered for every motor vehicle collision case. Stubborn litigiousness is a standard that may be difficult to meet, but bad faith in the underlying transaction can be shown where the defendant has violated traffic laws. Gather as much evidence as you can to show all the different traffic rules the defendant violated, and use that to support your claim for fees and expenses under the statute. 

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Citation: McKnight v. Love, No. A23A0730 (Ga. Ct. App. October 19, 2023)

About the Author

Darl Champion is an award-winning personal injury lawyer serving the greater Metro Atlanta area. He is passionate about ensuring his clients are fully compensated when they are harmed by someone’s negligence. Learn more about Darl here.