In the state of California, personal injury claimants can pursue both compensatory and exemplary damages. Compensatory damages, which include economic and non-economic losses, are intended to make the injured party “whole” again. Exemplary damages, or “punitive damages,” are only awarded in cases involving particularly egregious behavior.
Read on to learn the definition of punitive damages and when they might be recoverable in a personal injury case:
What Are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages may be awarded in addition to compensatory damages for two main reasons:
- To punish the defendant for egregious, intentional, grossly reckless, or reprehensible behavior (such as a repeat DUI offender causing an auto accident while intoxicated); and
- To discourage both the offender and other parties from repeating the same or similar conduct in the future.
To serve their intended purposes, punitive damages awards are often quite substantial.
When Are Punitive Damages Awarded in Personal Injury Cases?
The standard for awarding punitive damages varies from state to state. To recover punitive damages in California, the plaintiff must show clear and convincing evidence that the defendant engaged in a harmful act with malice, fraud, or oppression. The burden of proof for recovering punitive damages is higher than the regular California civil standard, which merely requires proof that something is more likely true than not.
What Constitutes “Malice?”
There are two ways to prove a defendant acted with malice:
- Demonstrate the defendant’s conduct must have been done with the intent to cause injury; or
- Demonstrate the defendant’s conduct was despicable (defined as conduct that reasonable people would find vile, base, or contemptible) and done with conscious or willful disregard of the safety and rights of others. A party has acted with willful disregard if they were aware of the probable dangerous consequences of their conduct, but despite having such knowledge deliberately and knowingly failing to avoid those consequences. This is sometimes characterized in personal injury cases as “reckless” conduct.
What Constitutes “Oppression?”
To prove the defendant acted with oppression, the plaintiff must show the defendant engaged in despicable conduct. Evidence must establish that this conduct subjected the plaintiff to cruel, unjust hardship in conscious disregard of his or her rights.
What Constitutes “Fraud?”
To prove the defendant acted with fraud, the plaintiff must show the defendant intentionally misrepresented, deceived, or concealed a material fact that was known to the defendant. That fact must be related to the harm caused. Furthermore, the misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment must have been done with the intent to deprive a person of their property rights, legal rights, or otherwise cause injury.
Are Punitive Damages Discretionary?
The judge or jury has discretion both in deciding whether to award punitive damages and in determining the amount of damages to award. There’s no fixed standard forcing the judge or jury to award a certain amount (or any amount at all). Instead, punitive damages are evaluated on a case by case basis according to a variety of factors.
Three factors are often considered when determining the value of a punitive damages award:
- How despicable, reprehensible, or intentional the defendant’s actions were;
- The financial condition of the defendant and whether a punitive damages award would have a proportionately deterrent effect on a repeat of the conduct at issue; and
- The punitive damages award amount (if any) that would reasonably relate and be proportionate to the actual harm caused to the injured party.
Though no cap on punitive damages has been written into California law, the state has largely embraced the single-digit ratio approach when calculating punitive damages in proportion to the actual or potential compensatory damages. A ratio greater than 9 or 10 to 1 is usually suspect and often will not survive review by a higher court.
When Are Punitive Damages Not Available?
Due to the California Civil Code’s requirement of an injured party to show clear and convincing evidence of malice, oppression, or fraud, honest mistakes due to a party’s carelessness—however unreasonable their behavior might seem—generally do not rise to the level of meriting punitive damages.
Additionally, even if you can satisfy the stringent burden of proof and demonstrate the other party acted maliciously, fraudulently, or oppressively, punitive damages won’t be available if you cannot prove you suffered actual harm. You must show you have the right to recover compensatory damages (economic, non-economic, or both) as a result of harm from the defendant before you become eligible for a punitive damages award.
Finally, punitive damages will not be awarded if you fail to specifically ask for them at the appropriate time during litigation. For these reasons, it’s advisable that you consult an attorney who has experience recovering punitive damages for personal injury victims.
What Are Some Scenarios When Punitive Damages May Be Awarded?
There are many scenarios when a punitive damages award might be available. The best way to find out if punitive damages may be warranted in your case is to speak with a personal injury lawyer.
Below are just a few situations when punitive damages may be available:
- A driver with multiple DUI convictions caused an accident while driving under the influence;
- A driver fled the scene of a hit and run accident;
- A person violently attacked another individual;
- A healthcare provider intentionally concealed evidence of medical malpractice;
- A product manufacturer failed to recall a defective product or notify consumers about the danger despite the existence of sufficient accident reports and consumer complaints to do so; or
- A product manufacturer intentionally failed to conduct tests to confirm the product’s safety or concealed facts about a known defect.
What Evidence Is Needed to Recover Punitive Damages?
The answer to this question depends on the facts surrounding your case. For example, if you were injured in a collision with a drunk driver, valuable evidence might include the police report, the results of chemical tests, and the at-fault driver’s criminal record. If you were injured by a defective product, your attorney can investigate whether the manufacturer knew about the defect and failed to take reasonable steps to protect consumers, or intentionally concealed evidence of the defect. Relevant evidence might include the product’s blueprints and schematics, eyewitness testimony, consumer complaints, accident reports, and testimony from a product specialist.
Discuss Your Case with a Long Beach Personal Injury Lawyer Today: Call (562) 206-2939
Your Injuries Are Personal to Me
If you were injured due to the negligence or intentional wrongdoing of another person, contact the Law Office of Michael D. Waks to discuss your case. Michael will perform a thorough investigation into your accident and make sure your claim accounts for all potentially recoverable damages.
Michael is well-versed in the case law and statutes pertaining to punitive damages awards. He can determine whether punitive damages may be warranted given the facts of your case and do everything in his power to help you pursue the maximum compensation possible.
Michael has won numerous six- and seven-figure settlements and trial verdicts for clients throughout southern California. He has over 30 years of experience providing attentive counsel to victims of personal injury and their loved ones.
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