When someone else causes you harm, you may want to do everything possible to hold them accountable for their actions. Many victims envision using a personal injury lawsuit to punish another person for causing them harm. In California, accident victims are generally able to recover economic and non-economic damages without issue.
Punitive damages, however, are more difficult to recover under California law. There are very limited circumstances under which a victim may successfully recover a punitive award.
If you have been injured because of another person’s actions, you may be entitled to recover monetary compensation from them. Punitive damages may be available if their actions were extreme and malicious. A personal injury lawyer at Citywide Law Group can help you recover the compensation you deserve. Call us today to request a free consultation and learn more.
What are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages are those awarded to a plaintiff (personal injury victim) to punish a defendant for their actions. These awards are not intended to compensate the plaintiff for any harm they have suffered. Instead, plaintiffs can recover economic and non-economic damages to take care of financial and hard-to-value losses.
Punitive damages are solely awarded as a punishment for malicious and/or incredibly reckless behavior. Any punitive damages are awarded in addition to any economic and non-economic damages that a plaintiff may recover.
When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?
Punitive damages are not available in every personal injury lawsuit that may be filed. Instead, California limits the situations when a defendant can be punished monetarily for his or her actions. A defendant’s conduct must rise above simple negligence or misconduct.
Oppression, Fraud, or Malice
Under California Civil Code 3294, a plaintiff may be awarded punitive damages if there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant in their case is guilty of:
- Fraud, or
California law defines oppression to mean “despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.”
California law defines fraud, for the purposes of awarding punitive damages, to mean:
- “Intentional misrepresentation, deceit,” or
- “Concealment of a material fact known to the defendant with the intention on the part of the defendant of thereby depriving a person of property or legal rights or otherwise causing injury.”
California defines malice, for the purposes of awarding punitive damages, to mean:
- “Conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff,” or
- “Despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.”
Clear and Convincing Evidence
It must be proven by clear and convincing evidence that a defendant acted with oppression, fraud, or malice. Clear and convincing evidence means that there must be a very high degree of probability that something is true. Evidence of oppression, fraud, or malice must be more persuasive than other evidence offered in a civil lawsuit.
Willful and Wanton Negligence
California courts have also held that punitive damages may be awarded if a defendant is guilty of willful and wanton negligence.
In 1941, the California Supreme Court, in Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co., explained that a defendant who performs an act “intentionally with the knowledge that it will probably cause harm” can be required to pay damages above and beyond those available in traditional negligence cases.
When a defendant is simply negligent, they may not realize that their actions pose a serious threat to others. Willful and wanton negligence, on the other hand, requires disregarding the risks that behavior may pose to others.
Wrongful Death & Survivorship Claims
Punitive damages are generally prohibited in California wrongful death cases. However, plaintiffs pursuing damages from a wrongful death claim may be entitled to an award of punitive damages if the defendant is convicted of felony murder. [California Code of Civil Procedure 3294(d)]
The personal representatives of a deceased accident victim’s estate may also be entitled to recover punitive damages by filing a survivorship claim. Punitive damages may be awarded in these cases if the victim had survived and would have been entitled to recover punitive damages himself. [California Code of Civil Procedure 377.34]
Situations Where Punitive Damages Can Be Awarded
In California, personal injury victims may be entitled to receive an award of monetary punitive damages if an injury is the result of:
- Car accidents caused by a driver under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Assault and battery
- Sexual assault
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress, and
- Wrongful termination.
Calculating the Value of Punitive Damages
When a jury determines that a defendant has acted with oppression, fraud, or malice, they may decide that an award of punitive damages is appropriate. How is the amount of these damages calculated?
Factors Relevant to the Calculation
A jury will consider all of the following factors when calculating punitive damages:
- How reprehensible was the defendant’s conduct?
- Did the defendant cause physical harm?
- Did the defendant disregard the safety and health or others;?
- Did the defendant knew about the victim’s financial vulnerabilities and take advantage of that knowledge?
- Was the defendant’s conduct was part of a pattern or practice?
- Did the defendant act with trickery or deceit?
- What award is necessary to punish the defendant and discourage future wrongful conduct?
- Is there a reasonable relationship between the degree of the defendant’s wrongful conduct and an appropriate award of punitive damages?
Punitive damages may not be increased simply because a defendant has significant financial resources. The calculation must be based solely on the defendant’s actions.
Limits on Punitive Awards
California law does not place a cap on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded in a lawsuit. However, in 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States explained in State Farm v. Campbell that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits “grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments.” Punitive damages must be “reasonable and proportionate to the amount of harm to the plaintiff and to the general damages recovered.”
Fighting to Recover Punitive Damages in California
Have you been injured because of another person’s wrongful conduct? If they acted with oppression, fraud, or malice, you may be entitled to recover an award of punitive damages. These punitive damages would be awarded in addition to any other compensation you receive. Contact the Los Angeles personal injury attorneys at Citywide Law Group for help pursuing the compensation to which you are entitled. During your free consultation, we will thoroughly review your case and determine if punitive damages may be available.
- California Legislative Information Article 3. Exemplary Damages
- Punitive Damages – California Civil Code § 3294