In California, an injured plaintiff may be entitled to recover multiple types of damages in a personal injury lawsuit. Some damages are intended to compensate a party for losses stemming from their injuries. Other damages, however, are awarded to punish a defendant for certain types of bad behavior.
Damages awarded to punish a defendant and deter others from taking similar actions are called punitive damages. In this article, we examine punitive damages in California.
Punitive Damages and Compensatory Damages
Punitive damages are a response to a defendant’s intentional harm or extreme recklessness. The main purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer and to deter future dangerous conduct. When a court awards punitive damages to a party, they are awarded in addition to compensatory damages, which compensate a party for material losses stemming from an accident.
Compensatory damages are broken into two categories: economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages compensate a party for actual costs incurred from an accident, such as lost wages, medical bills, and property damage. Non-economic damages are awarded for things like mental anguish, pain and suffering, and loss of consortium.
Awarding Punitive Damages
California Civil Code 3294 permits a jury to award punitive damages to a plaintiff in a personal injury case. To obtain punitive damages, the plaintiff in a personal injury case must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s conduct amounted to malice, oppression, or fraud.
As noted above, punitive damages are not intended to compensate a plaintiff for their injuries; rather, they are meant to punish the defendant in a personal injury lawsuit for egregious conduct. A punitive damage award is often significantly higher than the underlying compensatory damage award in a personal injury case. However, punitive damages are subject to appeal and may be reduced by an appellate court.
Availability of Punitive Damages
For a plaintiff to be awarded punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit in California, the court must determine that the defendant was guilty of at least one of the following by clear and convincing evidence:
- Oppression, which is despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of his or her rights
- Fraud, which is deceit, intentional misrepresentation, or concealment of material facts known by the defendant and made with the intent to deprive a person of property or legal right resulting in injury
- Malice, which is intentional conduct by a defendant to injure a plaintiff or outrageous conduct with a conscious disregard of the safety or rights of others
As noted above, the plaintiff must prove one of the above by clear and convincing evidence to obtain punitive damages. Clear and convincing evidence is a high standard of proof. Although not as high as the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, which is used in criminal cases, it is a higher level of proof than the preponderance of the evidence standard, which is the standard in most civil personal injury cases.
Calculating Punitive Damages
There is no fixed standard for determining the amount of punitive damages in a personal injury case in California. If the court in a personal injury lawsuit determines that the defendant should pay punitive damages, then this amount is often determined by a multiplier that increases with the seriousness of the defendant’s conduct.
For example, a $50,000 compensatory damage award can result in a $250,000 punitive damages award if the jury determines that a multiplier of five is appropriate given the defendant’s conduct. However, California law does not require that a multiplier be used and gives the jury broad discretion in determining the amount of punitive damages to award a plaintiff in a personal injury case.
The jury will normally consider the following factors to determine the appropriateness and amount of punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuits:
- Whether there is a reasonable relationship between the amount of punitive damages and the harm suffered by the plaintiff
- The level of reprehensibility of the defendant’s behavior
- What specific amount of compensation for the plaintiff will punish the defendant and deter future wrongful behavior
Contact a Personal Injury Lawyer
At Petrov Personal Injury Lawyers, we are here to help you obtain financial compensation for your injuries. When you hire us to represent you, we will use our years of experience taking on big companies and insurers to help you recover fair compensation after your accident. To date, our firm has recovered over $40 million dollars for injured plaintiffs, and we want to add you to our list of satisfied clients.