12 Feb 2020,

What Are Punitive Damages in California?

If you’re hurt in an accident that results from someone’s negligent acts, you’re probably aware that you have legal options to seek monetary damages under California law. 

However, some misconduct goes above and beyond mere negligence in causing injuries to a victim. When a person engages in dangerous, reckless, and even intentional acts, the outcome can hardly be considered accidental; it may even constitute a crime for which the offender may be arrested. Under such egregious circumstances, you may have additional rights. 

It may be possible to seek punitive damages in California, which can considerably increase your compensation as a victim.

Success in these cases requires high-level legal knowledge, dedication, and extensive experience in the relevant principles of law, so count on a California personal injury lawyer to pursue the responsible party. 

Still, an overview of punitive damages may help you understand the basics.

Summary of Punitive Damages

Compensation in a personal injury case is typically expressed in terms of monetary damages, which refers to the losses and other consequences you sustain as a victim. The theory is that responsible parties should be held accountable for their careless actions in an amount that makes you whole, i.e., as if the accident never happened.

Punitive damages are an entirely separate legal concept. They’re not intended to reimburse you, but rather to accomplish two different objectives:

  1. To punish the responsible person or entity for actions that are extreme or outrageous in the risk of harm they present to others; and,
  2. To discourage other individuals from engaging in such misconduct.

With respect to #2, the point is to make an example of the responsible party and demonstrate how the law punishes reckless and dangerous conduct. In fact, the California Civil Code 3294 uses the term “exemplary” damages for just this reason.

It’s possible to seek and recover punitive damages in a wide range of personal injury cases, but only where the actions are far more dangerous than what would apply in a claim based upon negligence. 

Examples include:

  • Motor vehicle collisions, perhaps where the motorist was drag racing or drunk driving with an extremely high blood alcohol content;
  • Slip and falls and other incidents due to dangerous conditions on a property, such as where the owner intentionally defied building code violations;
  • A dog bite, where the owner encouraged the animal to attack; and,
  • Products liability, where a manufacturer knew a defective product or drug was dangerous – and still sold it to consumers.

Legal Standard for Obtaining Punitive Damages

There are two key points to note when determining whether you may be eligible to recover exemplary damages:

  1. Under California Civil Code 3294, the defendant’s conduct must amount to:
    1. Malice, which is intentional conduct meant to cause injury to a victim;
    2. Oppression, referring to acts that subject the victim to injustice and cruelty in knowing disregard of legal rights; and,
    3. Fraud, meaning the intentional misrepresentation of a material fact – most often in connection with premises or product liability claims.
  2. You must prove element #1 by clear and convincing evidence, which is generally a higher burden than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to obtain compensatory damages. For practical purposes, you need to present evidence that there’s a high probability that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or fraud.

How to Seek Punitive Damages in California

You must specifically request the court to award punitive damages if you want to recover them at trial, and it’s the jury who will decide the issue. In many cases, you’ll make the request in the same proceeding that’s focused on the defendant’s liability. Under some circumstances, the matter may be a separate proceeding that goes forward after a verdict on liability.

The jury isn’t bound by any specific standard in deciding how much to award in exemplary damages. Instead, jurors will weigh:

  • The extent to which the defendant’s acts were reprehensible;
  • Whether there’s a way to tie the amount of punitive damages to the harm suffered by the plaintiff; and,
  • What amount of exemplary damages will truly serve as punishment, considering the defendant’s financial situation?

Speak to a Skilled California Personal Injury Attorney Today

To learn more about whether your circumstances justify seeking punitive damages in California, please contact the Levinson Law Group. 

We can schedule a free consultation to review your claim, explore your options, and determine an appropriate strategy for enforcing your rights. 

Our experienced legal team serves victims throughout San Diego County from our office locations in Carlsbad and Oceanside. 

Get started on your case today.