Recovering Punitive Damages from a Personal Injury Case in California

Sometimes the actions of a defendant in a personal injury case are so shocking that a jury awards the plaintiff extra compensation in the form of punitive damages. In some large jury verdicts, punitive damages account for a majority of the money awarded.

Most personal injury cases — such as car accidents, pedestrian accidents, or slip-and-fall injuries — are brought to make those who have been unjustly injured financially whole. Lawsuits typically seek compensatory damages for medical bills, lost income, property damage, and pain and suffering.

But when the facts of a case show that punitive damages are appropriate, we at Sam & Ash Injury Law will make a strong case for them, too. Punitive damages provide an additional award to the injured and send a message that outrageous conduct won’t be tolerated. We’ll fight for punitive damages for you when appropriate because you deserve What’s Right.

What Are Punitive Damages?

In California law, punitive damages are called exemplary damages.

Exemplary damages are awarded in addition to the damages a jury awards to compensate an accident victim for their medical expenses, lost work, other economic losses, and pain and suffering.

Exemplary damages are meant to:

  • Punish the defendant for conduct considered grossly negligent or intentional
  • Set an example to deter others from acting in an egregious manner as the defendant has

Each state has its own rules regarding punitive damages. Some states limit or cap the amount a jury may award as punitive damages. However, courts typically require the plaintiff to prove the defendant engaged in an intentional tort, such as an assault, or exhibited a reckless disregard for the safety of others, such as by driving with an extremely high blood-alcohol content or at a speed significantly over the posted limit.

Do I Have Rights to Punitive Damages in California?

California’s exemplary damages law (Civil Code 3294) allows a plaintiff to recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant if it has been proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of:

  • Oppression – defined as despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights
  • Fraud – intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact known to the defendant with the intention of causing injury, or
  • Malice – conduct intended to injure the plaintiff or despicable conduct by the defendant carried out with a willful disregard for the rights or safety of others

Clear and convincing evidence is a higher standard of proof than a preponderance of the evidence, which is the standard for deciding a personal injury lawsuit. However, it is less rigorous than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required for conviction in criminal trials.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Colorado v. New Mexico, 467 U.S. 310 (1984), that clear and convincing means the evidence is substantially more likely to be true than untrue. In other words, the judge or jury must be convinced it is highly probable that what the plaintiff says occurred did happen.

In Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co., 18 Cal.2d 863 (1941), California’s Supreme Court ruled that wanton and reckless misconduct justifies an award of punitive damages. The court said wanton and reckless misconduct occurs when a person with “no intent to cause harm intentionally performs an act so unreasonable and dangerous that he knows, or should know, it is highly probable that harm will result.”

California’s exemplary damages law allows punitive damages if the defendant is convicted of felony murder. Exemplary damages may also be awarded under Civil Code 377.34 if the victim would have been entitled to recover punitive damages had they survived the incident being litigated.

How Are Punitive Damages Calculated in California?

California law does not establish how a jury will determine the amount of punitive damages it will award if it decides they are warranted.

When a lawsuit that demands punitive damages is tried, the judge instructs jury members that if they decide to award punitive damages, they should consider all of the following factors when determining the amount:

  • How reprehensible was the defendant’s conduct? In deciding this, the jury may consider, among other factors:
  • Whether the conduct caused physical harm
  • Whether the defendant disregarded the health or safety of others
  • Whether the plaintiff was financially weak or vulnerable, and the defendant knew it and took advantage of the plaintiff
  • Whether the defendant’s conduct involved a pattern or practice
  • Whether the defendant acted with trickery or deceit
  • Is there a reasonable relationship between the appropriate amount of punitive damages and the harm to the plaintiff that the defendant knew was likely to occur?
  • In view of the defendant’s financial condition, what amount is necessary to punish them and discourage future wrongful conduct? If the defendant has presented evidence of limited ability to pay, the judge is to say, “Any award you impose may not exceed the defendant’s ability to pay.” The judge is also to advise against an excessive award based on the defendant’s financial ability to pay it.
  • Punitive damages may not be used to punish the defendant for the impact of their alleged misconduct on anyone other than the plaintiff.

In many cases, a jury will set exemplary damages by multiplying its compensatory damages award by a factor that jury members agree to. For example, if a jury decided to multiply a $100,000 compensatory damages award by three, it would return an award of $300,000 in punitive damages.

Is There a Cap on Punitive Damages Awards in California?

California does not cap the amount of punitive damages that a jury may award. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments in the form of high-value punitive damages awards violate the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

Therefore, a judge may reduce an excessive punitive damages award.

How To Seek Punitive Damages if You Are a Victim in California

A personal injury lawsuit filed in California would demand an unspecified amount of exemplary damages in addition to compensatory damages based on the egregious conduct of the defendant. In some cases, punitive damages are considered in a separate proceeding after a jury has returned with a verdict and an award of compensatory damages.

A lawsuit would have to explain the reprehensible nature of the defendant’s conduct and how it led directly to the harm you suffered. Language in the lawsuit would answer the questions that would eventually be put to a jury, including:

  • That the defendant acted with malice, fraud, and/or oppression
  • That the defendant’s conduct caused you physical harm
  • That the defendant disregarded the health or safety of others
  • That the defendant knew of and took advantage of your vulnerability
  • That an appropriate award of exemplary damages will serve as punishment for the defendant’s unreasonable and unacceptable behavior and serve to deter others

Cases that call for punitive damages are rare, and punitive damages are typically only awarded if a jury returns a compensatory damages award. Most personal injury cases are settled outside of court through negotiations that result in compensation, but no admission of the type of culpability the punitive damages are meant to address.

In most cases that meet the requirements for a punitive damages award, the defendant’s egregious behavior and the serious harm it has caused are apparent from the start. In other cases, an investigation uncovers a blatant deception that was previously unknown beyond those involved.

If you have been injured in an accident someone else caused or by someone’s intentional unprovoked acts, you have the right to demand compensatory damages for your economic losses and for your pain and suffering. You should speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer about whether other factors in your case warrant a demand for punitive damages as well.

Contact an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney in Orange County, CA

The experienced and compassionate Orange County personal injury attorneys at Sam & Ash Injury Law can help you seek the compensation you are due for harm someone else has unjustly caused. We provide aggressive litigation services with the objective of recovering maximum compensation for our clients. Our team will evaluate whether any evidence of egregious behavior in your case justifies a demand for punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.

You deserve What’s Right. Schedule a free initial consultation 24/7 by calling our Newport Beach law firm or contacting us online. We are paid on a contingency fee basis. There is no fee unless we recover compensation for you.

Author: Ash Watkins

Ash started her legal career defending insurance companies against injury victims. She saw how insurance companies treated people who had legitimate injury claims. But she also saw how notoriously sleazy the personal injury lawyers were. Neither side was focused on the injured person, so she decided to do something about it.