Punitive Damages in a California Personal Injury Case
Under California law, plaintiffs are allowed to recover “punitive damages” in cases where they can prove their injuries were caused by the defendant's malice, oppression, or fraud.
In most cases, this involves a situation where there was intentional harm or extreme recklessness. Punitive damages are different from compensatory damages that normally include medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.
Rather, punitive damages, often called exemplary damages, are based not on a plaintiff's losses, but on the outrageous conduct by the defendant and their ability to pay.
The primary purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer and others and to deter dangerous conduct in the future. When punitive damages are granted, they are awarded in addition to compensatory damages.
In most personal injury cases, the focus is mostly on the plaintiff's injuries and whether the defendant was at fault.
These issues generally determine a plaintiff's compensation in the form of compensatory damages. These damages are awarded to an injured party to compensate them for the losses incurred from the injuries.
Compensatory damages are further broken into two categories, economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages are awarded for any actual costs incurred from the accident, such as medical bills, lost wages, and property damage. Non-economic damages are awarded for pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of consortium.
As noted, California law also allows the plaintiff to get punitive damages in cases where the defendant's actions were especially irresponsible.
If a court orders a defendant to pay punitive damages, then those damages are added onto the compensatory damage award for the plaintiff. Our California personal injury lawyers will review below.
When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?
California Civil Code 3294 allows a jury to award punitive damages in a personal injury case. It should be noted, however, the plaintiff has to prove by clear and convincing evidence the defendant's conduct amounted to malice, oppression, or fraud.
California Civil Code 3294(c) defines malice, oppression, fraud, which is discussed below in detail.
As noted, punitive damages are different from compensatory damages because punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff for their injuries; rather, they are meant to punish the defendant or company for their conduct that led to the injuries.
Punitive damages are awarded to make an example out of the defendant and deter others from mimicking the defendant's conduct in the future.
A punitive damage award is often much higher than the underlying compensatory damage award in the case. Punitive damage awards are subject to appeal and can be reduced by the judge or a higher court.
When Are Punitive Damages Available?
Once it is determined that the defendant is liable in a personal injury case, then the focus turns to whether punitive damages are warranted.
For punitive damages to be available in California, the finder of fact (jury or judge) must determine by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant was also guilty of at least one of the following:
- Oppression which is despicable conduct that subjects someone to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of their rights;
- Fraud which is the intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of material facts known by the defendant and made with intent to deprive someone of property or legal right causing an injury;
- Malice is intentional conduct by a defendant to cause an injury to the plaintiff or outrageous conduct with a conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.
Clear and convincing evidence is a high standard of proof in law. While not as high as the criminal proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, it is a higher level of proof than the preponderance of the evidence standard needed to win a civil personal injury case.
The finder of fact must be pretty convinced that the defendant exhibited one of the types of conduct listed above to award punitive damages to the plaintiff in a personal injury case.
How Are Punitive Damages Calculated in California?
As noted, there is not a fixed standard to determine the amount of punitive damages in a personal injury case in California.
If it is determined that the defendant should pay punitive damages, then the amount is often determined by a number multiplier that increases with the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct.
For example, a $100,000 compensatory damage award can lay the foundation for a $500,000 punitive damage award if the jury determines that a multiplier of 5 is appropriate given the defendant's conduct.
Depending on the jury's finding, the multiplier can be increased or increased to determine punitive damages. California law does not require a multiplier to be used and gives the jury discretion in determining punitive damages.
To decide whether award a plaintiff punitive damages and how much, a jury will normally consider the following:
- The level of reprehensibility of a defendant's behavior;
- If there is a reasonable relationship between the amount of punitive damages and the harm inflicted on the plaintiff; and
- What specific amount will punish a defendant and inhibit future wrongful behavior while considering the defendant's financial situation.
What Are the Related California Statutes?
In California, punitive damage laws for personal injury cases are outlined in California Civil Code 3294. As noted above, the terms malice, fraud, and oppression are also defined in the statute as follows:
- 3294(c)(1) – Malice is intentional conduct meant to cause injury or conduct so reckless that the defendant shows a conscious disregard for the safety of others;
- 3294(C)(2) – Oppression is despicable conduct by the defendant that is cruel or unjust towards the plaintiff and causes hardship or conduct where the defendant consciously disregards the plaintiff's rights;
- 3294(c)(3) – Fraud is an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact by the defendant, depriving the plaintiff of their rights or causing injury.
Punitive damages can also be awarded in connection with a criminal homicide case in certain circumstances. A finder of fact must find that the defendant committed malice, fraud, or oppression in causing the plaintiff's injuries to award punitive damages.
Is there a limit on damages? Many states have caps in place to limit the number of punitive damages that a plaintiff can get in a personal injury case. In California, there is no such cap.
While punitive damages are unlimited by state law, the US Constitution prohibits grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
This means that if a punitive damage award appears to be grossly excessive or arbitrary, the court can reduce it.
How Can a Victim Seek Punitive Damages?
In a California personal injury case, a plaintiff has to specifically ask for a punitive damages award, which may not specify the amount they are seeking
Often, any punitive damages award is decided in the same proceeding as the defendant's liability in the case, or the defendant could request that the issue be tried in a separate proceeding.
If there is a separate trial, the jury won't hear any testimony of the defendant's financial situation condition unless the plaintiff wins the case and the jury determined the defendant was guilty of fraud, malice, or oppression that was discussed above.
At this point only will the jury be allowed to hear evidence of the defendant's finances and then they will determine what amount of punitive damages to award.
The purpose of this procedure is to avoid prejudicing the jury against a wealthy defendant. If you believe you suffered an injury due to somebody's fraud, malice, or oppression, then you should contact our office to review the details and legal options.
Injury Justice Law Firm is based in Los Angeles County and serves victims throughout Southern California. We offer a free case consultation by calling (818) 781-1570, or just filling out our contact form here.